Culture in the Cloud: The Case of Montana Legal Services

  • Helena, MT
  • Incorporated as 501(c)3 in 1967
  • Serves more than 4,500 people per year

Providing legal information and services to the lower-income residents of a state poses a number of challenges to an understaffed, underfunded organizationproviding them across a state as
large and geographically diverse as Montana can multiply those problems pretty quickly. But the Montana Legal Services Association found that moving much of its infrastructure to the Cloud went a long way toward eliminating the geographical problems and changing staff members mindset about what the organization does, and how it does it.

We provide free civil legal services to low income people in Montana, and we have mostly federal funding, said Executive Director Alison Paul. Its very hard to raise money for poor people to pay for lawyers, so were consistently underfunded, and have just 12 attorneys for the whole state.

Those attorneys, as well as the organizations 36 employees, are spread out among three different offices in far-flung parts of the state. Providing legal services to the people in just the counties where the offices are locatedwhich is more in line with traditional legal aid modelswould leave whole parts of the state uncovered, Alison said, so the MLSA sought a way to reach a wider audience of residents.

Weve taken the approach that were a statewide law firm with offices in three places, a firm that serves the entire state, she said, instead of three offices that each serve the residents of its surrounding area. We couldnt say that before.

Alison means before MLSA moved nearly all its systems to the Cloud.

The internet has significantly changed how were able to deliver services, she said. Weve
seen a growth in coverage, and now were penetrating the state better.

Internally, Cloud-based tools like an internal instant messaging service and document sharing have made it possible for the organization to act like the single, multiple-office law firm it considers itself.

Its absolutely made it easier to collaborate and work in different parts of the state, Alison said. The instant messaging services allow us to see who is at their desk and working, like looking around the office, and its not just the ability to IM, its that ability to see and have that connection in another office that allows you to keep your focus. Its a simple little tool, but its dramatically changed our culture.

The organization also adopted a project management solution that allows for seamless workspace sharing and collaboration, which goes a long way toward uniting disparate offices. People can get to the things we let them see, but we can also have restricted spaces, she said. So, for example, we have a workspace that just the management team can access, that not even the IT guy can see, where we can have discussions and manage the organization in private even though were spread out across 600 miles.

We use almost everything in the Cloud, she said. We also have a pretty robust web site and use that to reach our audience. All our outreach is web-based now.

Information is delivered a number of ways, including online videos, live chats, and other resources. In areas that arent close to one of the three offices, the organization has installed kiosks with computer terminals to help people find information and appropriate legal forms.

Despite the success the Cloud solutions have brought MLSA, Alison said there have been some struggles to adapt to the changing culture, though they have more to do with attorneys questioning the value of legal information delivered online than with the delivery itself.

Our attorneys struggle with that being good enough, because legal issues can be complicated, she said. Theres a mentality that has existed in legal aid that what people need is a lawyer, not information, and if you dont give them a lawyer youre not giving them what they need. I dont agree with that. Its our job to give information about their rights and to educate them, and we do that to the best of our abilities. The Cloud increases those abilities.

Chris Bernard