An ideal legal team might include attorneys, paralegals, social workers or case managers, and administrative support specialists. Although funding may not always allow for this full complement of team members at a program’s outset, each role is necessary to support balanced caseloads and holistic representation.

Zealous, person-centered representation requires sufficient staffing

Providers should consider the appropriate staffing needed to ensure person-centered representation and perform the following functions:

  • Legal representation. Thoroughly trained, experienced, and culturally competent attorneys who thrive in a collaborative environment and are eager to make innovative arguments are key to a well-functioning team. Attorneys must commit to staying on top of the changes in the law and exploring options for which there may not be a well-established precedent. An attorney may be one of the few people a client can trust or rely on, and therefore may be asked to provide support that goes beyond their legal expertise. Although attorneys should not be required to step into every role, they should be equipped with trustworthy resources to which they can refer their clients. Similarly, attorneys should call on other professionals when doing so will support client representation. For example, attorneys may want to involve a mental health professional when interviewing someone who is suffering from trauma.
  • Supervision. Staff supervision should be carefully considered when designing a program and during any point of expansion. Ideally, legal staff engaged in a complicated and ever-changing field of law will be able to count on mentorship, training, and supervision from more seasoned practitioners as well as from peers who can act as thought and strategy partners. It is important that supervisors be familiar with the heavy demands of detained removal defense to properly support attorneys and assign clients in a way that is sustainable. It is also important at the outset to provide staff with clear, realistic expectations related to their caseloads, responsibilities, and demands on their time. Supervisors should adopt regular check-ins to discuss case strategy and workload. Managers should consider how much time supervisors will devote to supervision relative to other work requirements, including their own caseloads. Providers should also contemplate supervisory structures for support staff. For example, paralegals can be directly supervised by staff attorneys they work with or by a paralegal manager/supervisor. As a program expands, a critical part of building sustainable capacity is reassessing supervision structures and any potential changes that may be necessary as a result of a growing staff.
  • Administrative and legal support. Legal representation programs need to track hearing dates, case deadlines, and timelines, as well as compile exhaustive evidentiary documents and complete multiple legal forms. Administrative and legal support staff can often do these types of tasks most efficiently. Administrative support specialists can also submit invoices and oversee payment to experts, interpreters, and other subcontractors, as well as track and input data required for various funding purposes in the program database (necessary to track case progress and demonstrate program impact over time). Many managers report that providing paralegals with expanded roles and responsibilities in support of legal cases—including writing affidavits, liaising with family members, and collecting documents—results in increased job satisfaction for the legal support staff and the attorneys who can focus their time on tasks that require their skills and intervention. Similarly, U.S. Department of Justice-accredited representatives—who are not attorneys but can represent people in immigration proceedings—can be an important part of the legal team representing people before USCIS, EOIR, or the BIA.Although accredited representatives can add legal capacity for removal proceedings, applications for immigration benefits, and case management, many other legal interventions require a licensed attorney, including complex removal proceedings, habeas cases, and collateral proceedings that happen outside of immigration court. (See “Designing an effective and scalable pilot program.”) It is critical that attorney supervision be involved in legal strategy considerations in all cases. Accredited representatives may supplement attorney capacity and add significant value to legal teams, provided that they have strong training and support, and close attorney supervision.
  • Community engagement and outreach. Implementing strong and successful local and state programs requires close collaboration among providers, CBOs, and representatives of local government. This includes not only direct community education but ongoing communication with CBO partners about referrals, clients’ cases they are collaborating on, and program updates so that CBO staff can properly advise community members. Communication helps build community trust and set realistic expectations, which is particularly important when a program is not yet funded to serve everyone and the provider will necessarily have to turn some people away for lack of capacity. Collaboration also includes outreach to elected officials and government agencies to keep them apprised about the program. Providers can prioritize this work by ensuring that staffing time is allocated for it.
  • Social work and case management. To fully support clients and ensure holistic, person-centered representation, social workers or case managers should be integrated into legal teams, to strengthen the client’s chance of being granted the desired legal outcome and address the harms they have experienced throughout the detention and court process. “Providing support to clients in the midst of that experience impacts their ability to withstand it,” says Sarah Knight, social work supervisor at the Bronx Defenders. “The supportive roles are important not only because they support a legal goal, but because people deserve support and individualized, affirming representation as they navigate a harmful process that should not exist.”Sarah Knight, social work supervisor, the Bronx Defenders, January 8, 2021, via e-mail. Holistic defense is most effective when it is a true partnership between lawyering and social work. In many states, it can also have the added benefit of extending the protections of the attorney-client relationship to the communications among social services staff and the client.

Addressing clients’ needs through holistic representation

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Staff recruitment should reflect an organizational commitment to universal representation

Centering the commitment to universal representation when hiring can help prepare new employees to transition most effectively to the model and get a sense of organizational culture. This preparation improves staff retention and satisfaction. In addition to assessing the requisite skills and experience, the following considerations might prove valuable for managers as they evaluate prospective job applicants:

  • Does the candidate indicate a genuine interest in and commitment to universal representation?
  • Regardless of whether they will work directly with clients, can the candidate explain why it is important to provide services for everyone, including people with criminal convictions? Does this belief include people convicted of serious violent crimes?
  • How does the candidate see their role as supporting clients’ self-determination and autonomy?
  • Does the candidate recognize how intersecting identities—such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—affect people’s life experiences, influence how the system and system actors respond, and impact their legal case?
  • Is the candidate a directly impacted member of the community?
  • Does the candidate have experience in or a commitment to working with community groups and coalitions to advance social change?
  • How does the candidate envision approaching work on an interdisciplinary legal team?

Although that list is not exhaustive, it lays the groundwork for considerations that providers must make when hiring under the universal representation model. As with any hiring decision, other related questions can help determine whether someone will be a good fit in the organization.

Support structures are vital for successful programs

Even the strongest legal programs should expect a lot of “losses,” because representing everyone means representing people with no legal options and having clients’ cases denied more often than in triage-based programs. Team support is critical to allowing staff the space and the tools to process their own reactions.

Because universal representation programs require daily attempts to disrupt systems of oppression, an organizational commitment to staff wellness is imperative to help support resilience and promote retention—both key to sustaining the work. This is particularly important for staff who share identities with the people they serve and must bear witness to the suffering and injustice they face as a result of that shared identity. Organizations should work to promote equitable workplaces and create wellness initiatives to support staff on a collective level, as well as encourage people to take the time, space, and opportunities to engage in self-care on an individual level.

“This is a highly charged, emotional, and combative practice area,” says Ellen Pachnanda of Brooklyn Defender Services.Ellen Pachnanda, supervising attorney, Brooklyn Defender Services, November 1, 2020, via e-mail. “Create a team that is supportive and encouraging—as every day we are dealing with families torn apart, unwarranted detentions of mentally and medically vulnerable clients, and tremendous suffering. This takes a toll on everyone on the team, and you must take time to recognize the secondary trauma that is lived on a daily basis. Encourage self-care and taking breaks. . . . This support will encourage retention, which yields the expertise needed to carry these programs forward.”

“The same thing that we want to do for clients—minimize harm experienced in the process, increase opportunities for support during the process, and sustain our capacity to continue the fight—we want to do for ourselves and the culture of defense work,” says Sarah Knight of the Bronx Defenders. “We want to be able to influence the work to happen in a more sustainable way so that we can continue long enough to change things systemically.”

Balanced workloads are critical for zealous representation, program sustainability, and staff satisfaction

Determining a reasonable workload for each attorney or legal team is important to ensure sufficient capacity to provide zealous representation, build a sustainable program, and reduce staff burnout and turnover that can result from unreasonably large caseloads. Although the numbers range across programs and attorneys, managers should attempt to discern how many clients their legal teams can responsibly take on at any given time while providing high-quality representation to as many people as possible. As programs grow and become more experienced, efficiencies of scale should result.

Many providers may be looking for guidance on how to set client caseloads for the organization and/or among staff. In practice, there is no one formula or method, but—when considered together—several factors can help program managers determine reasonable caseloads. These include the following:

  • Staff composition. Although paralegals and other staff do not necessarily carry caseloads of their own, including them on a legal team goes a long way toward increasing the number of clients that any one attorney can handle.
  • Staff experience. As with most jobs, more experienced attorneys can likely handle heavier caseloads than newer staff can.
  • Client population and case complexity. One challenge associated with the universal representation model is the relative unpredictability of the types and complexities of cases. Clients may range from someone with a straightforward claim to someone requiring complex post-conviction relief to someone who has decided that they would like to return to their home country. These cases will resolve at different speeds and will affect the number of clients an attorney can handle.
  • Case activity. Providers should consider categorizing their workloads beyond whether a client’s case is open or closed. Some cases will involve more work or a higher level of activity than others, depending on the type and stage of the case and the client’s custody status. When people are detained, their cases usually move much more quickly and require more activity in a condensed period, while the cases of people who are not detained may receive long continuances between hearings. As more clients get released, providers may be able to accept additional clients they would not otherwise be able to serve if all cases were equally time-intensive.
  • Immigration court. A number of factors associated with the local court and even individual immigration judges can affect caseloads. Judges and courts may have wide variations in case outcome rates or grants of release on bond; courts also vary substantially regarding average case time and backlogs.See TRAC, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” for information about average case time and backlogs by court. These factors all have the potential to influence recommendations for caseload size.
  • Distance. The physical distance to a detention center and/or immigration court can have a significant impact on the number of clients an attorney can represent. Understandably, if attorneys must travel several hours to meet with clients and/or appear in a hearing, they will not be able to represent the same number of clients as if the court were down the street. Similarly, the use of technology such as videoconferencing or the ability of clients to make and receive legal phone calls can have a substantial impact on the time a case takes.

When necessary, incorporate support from pro bono attorneys to complement the program’s scope of representation

The goal of universal representation is to create an established infrastructure for immigrant defense, fully funded by the government. The government must be made and held responsible for systems and an infrastructure that ensure fairness in our courts. This cannot be left to the grace of a volunteer corps—what one journalist likened to a safety net “sustained by the legal equivalent of a bake sale.”Tina Rosenberg, “If You’re Like Me, You Can’t Sit By. This Is America,” New York Times, August 20, 2019, Sarah Plastino, senior staff attorney at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, supports this sentiment. “Representation is a fundamental right and that right cannot be protected solely through the service of volunteers, without the [necessary] expertise and reliable resources.”Sarah Plastino, senior staff attorney, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, telephone interview by Liz Kenney, associate program director, Vera Institute of Justice, September 3, 2020.

Because of the complexity of detained removal defense and the advanced expertise needed to defend a client effectively, these cases are often beyond what a pro bono attorney can conscientiously represent if they are not otherwise an immigration attorney. Thus, engaging pro bono attorneys requires that the program have sufficient capacity and resources to support and mentor volunteers. These pro bono programs—in and of themselves—should not be seen as an adequate substitute for a fully funded system. Still, given the correct circumstances, pro bono attorneys can be used strategically to help bolster the defense infrastructure.

Any pro bono component of a program should be incorporated after the primary provider has a sound base of experienced attorneys, direct representation experience, and the resources to offer trainings and ongoing mentorship. Plastino recommends that pro bono attorneys help expand a universal representation program’s capacity by bringing expertise to proceedings that are ancillary to the immigration case, including post-conviction relief, federal habeas corpus litigation, and appeals, thus broadening the scope of representation for detained immigrants in removal proceedings. Similarly, pro bono attorneys can bring much-needed resources to time-intensive and sometimes costly aspects of deportation defense, such as investigations and evidence gathering in a client’s country of origin. Finally, another benefit of engaging pro bono attorneys and firms in universal representation programs is that their participation expands observations of the immigration court system to new audiences, broadening the base of people calling for increased transparency, fairness, and reform of a system that is exceptionally opaque, even in comparison to other legal systems.