In the fall of 2020, Firesign published an e-book entitled “Connecting in a Crisis” that highlighted five law firms working to connect with their clients and communities in new ways during the pandemic. You can access the complete book using the download form on this page.
For Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal assistance to low-income clients and families, the COVID-19 pandemic may have forced the offices to close, but the organization couldn’t let a crisis stop its work.
The group provides free legal help in 21 counties for those who have civil legal issues that affect housing, elder law, public benefits, consumer fraud, healthcare, children’s well-being, special education and relief from domestic violence. So they knew they had to help. But with stay-at-home orders limiting their options, and the courts closed, the big question was how to help during the pandemic.
The Missouri unemployment rate was surging — it had been less than 4 percent in March but jumped to nearly 10 percent in April. In raw numbers, instead of a few thousand initial unemployment claims every week, there were tens of thousands — even a couple of weeks when the count passed 100,000, according to the Department of Labor.
“Our client group is among the most vulnerable,” said Latasha Barnes, an attorney with the nonprofit organization. “And now our potential eligible client group had expanded significantly. We had so many people losing jobs who now needed public benefits and just don’t know what to do — people who probably hadn’t had to worry about housing stability or income stability. So not only are we navigating a public health crisis, but now people are having personal financial crises, and that really makes everything more complicated.
A community partner recommended offering virtual services for those who might be struggling during the pandemic, and the idea for webinars was born, said Louisa Gregory, associate director of development for special events and digital media.
The effort sparked a social media outreach that has become more successful than the staff at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri ever dreamed,w reaching more than 40,000 people and growing.
Finding the Right Podium
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri crafted its virtual outreach strategy carefully – though, of course, quickly. Barnes had been planning a series of in-person legal education and services clinics in collaboration with community partners. She considered canceling, but a community partner suggested trying Facebook.
“We do recognize that some of the most vulnerable may not have access, but we thought the more we could disseminate broadly the better. Maybe it would trickle down to some who may not otherwise have access,” Barnes said. “It grew from may not otherwise have access,” Barnes said. “It grew from there.”
In addition to broadcasting via Facebook, staff members scheduled live events during times when the organization’s page already had the most activity. The live events were recorded so others could revisit or share them. The sessions were timed based on when the target audience was most likely be available, considering homeschooling, work demands, and limited bandwidth. They paid $12 per week to boost the posts on Facebook to enlarge the audience, Gregory said. In addition to individuals, the events also targeted social workers, community activists and community organizations who serve a similar population to provide additional information needed by their clients.
Becoming a Trusted Adviser
The so-called Money Monday series, in partnership with the St. Louis Regional Financial Empowerment Coalition and Money Smart St. Louis, sought to address various topics in light of COVID-19. Many government policies had temporarily changed; many people faced challenges they’d never before encountered.
When the planned four-part series neared its end, community partners asked for more, particularly as stay-at-home orders were extended.
“So many things were changing. People just wanted to have somewhere to turn to and that they could trust for the information,” Barnes said.
They tapped other subject-matter experts within Legal Services to provide comprehensive and up-to-date information. To date, there have been 13 broadcasts, with more planned as needed. Topics have included food stamps, stimulus checks and tax breaker credits, housing/eviction policies, small-business resources, family law and domestic violence, estate planning, pandemic-related scams, unemployment benefits, student loans, special education, small business re-opening resources and other COVID-related topics.
In addition to archiving the broadcasts online and making them available on YouTube for broader reach, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri offers links to presentation slides, fact sheets and other relevant resources. Maggie Probert, director of development and communications, said a professional who came across the webinars when researching housing issues related to COVID-19 called the material the most helpful she’d found.
“She then investigated the rest of the webinars on the other issues and is using them as resources, too,” Probert said. “While this is not the intended audience, it’s a great secondary audience and an outcome that helps build a reputation for the agency.”
Other organizations have piggybacked on Legal Services presentations, featuring the nonprofit’s staff members on their own broadcasts. For example, Tishaura Jones, St. Louis city treasurer, has done two sessions with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri staff for her Tips with the Treasurer series.
Brittany Hubbard, paralegal and legal services coordinator, monitored the chat section during the live presentations. She said she began recognizing the same people returning for multiple sessions on different topics, and there were many grateful comments.
The audience for the presentations keeps growing with the number of views increasing weeks later. “People continue to use the resources,” Gregory said.
As courts reopen and the organization eases back to in-person community events and legal clinics, the past several weeks will have lasting effects. “We will continue to use this platform for outreach because it’s been so effective,” Probert said. However, she emphasized that virtual outreach won’t replace personal events.
What we love: Like many organizations, Legal Services had to quickly embrace virtual events – but it did so in a truly thoughtful and empathetic way.
While many U.S. businesses were flocking to Zoom, Legal Services opted for Facebook Live, which it knew would have broader access to its potential client base. The Legal Services team also timed its sessions for its clients’ convenience, not their own – and made recordings
The non-profit also made smart and economical decisions regarding their promotions, paying just $12 per week to amplify their message.
The takeaway: Meet your audience where they are.