We talked to Adrian Tirtanadi of Open Door Legal on how legal aid is a cost-effective way of reducing poverty in America.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Adrian Tirtanadi: My wife and I are grateful to be doing okay. Thankfully, we both have our health and our jobs. Unfortunately, many folks in San Francisco and especially low-income families, have not been so lucky. We’re hoping that by helping people who are facing eviction or job loss, we can make life better for these families during the pandemic and beyond.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Open Door Legal.
Adrian Tirtanadi: Since middle school, I’ve had an obsession with trying to reduce poverty in the United States. Eventually, I realized that legal aid was the least-funded and most cost-effective way to reduce poverty in America. I wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school.
The idea was to pioneer the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.
In law school, I met Virginia, our Legal Services Director. Together, we co-founded Open Door Legal, two weeks after I passed the bar. When we opened, we put a small sign in the window that said “Free Legal Help,” and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach, we were overwhelmed with requests from people who had good cases but had been turned away everywhere else. In the first year alone, we handled over 150 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law.
How does Open Door Legal innovate?
Adrian Tirtanadi: Right now, over 80% of people with a civil legal need get no help whatsoever. That means low-income people with serious issues, such as pending evictions, custody battles, or discrimination, are almost entirely left on their own.
The core innovation that differentiates our organization from others is our neighborhood universal access model. This has allowed us to do three important things never done before in legal aid: 1) take responsibility for ensuring everyone gets help, 2) triage problems and 3) work across disciplines.
We also utilize our best-in-class technology, robust volunteer network, and knowledge management systems to ensure we do not turn away anyone with a real legal problem.
This model has been incredibly effective for us. It helped us quickly pivot to working from home when many of our peer orgs were still relying on paper file systems. We actually just opened our three thousandth case and have helped hundreds of people stay housed, keep their families safe, and more.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Adrian Tirtanadi: The pandemic has dramatically increased the number of legal issues facing San Francisco’s low-income communities. Family matters, housing issues, consumer fraud, employment issues, and elder issues have all increased. This month, our total caseload has exceeded pre-pandemic numbers and is expected to continuously increase.
People are struggling to meet basic needs and need legal help to stabilize their housing and financial situations. As an organization, we are coping by increasing our brief services, maintaining a Coronavirus resource guide to help people with frequently asked questions, and ensuring our remote services are fully accessible to all clients.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Adrian Tirtanadi: While our staff was able to transition quite smoothly to remote work, it was much more difficult for our clients. Many of our clients do not have access to the technology needed to do remote meetings. Because of that, it was paramount that we reopened our physical offices to clients as soon as possible, so that they could use our technology.
Once we were able to safely reopen in June, case numbers jumped pretty rapidly, meaning that the physical location being inaccessible had, in fact, been a fundamental barrier.
This realization reaffirmed a decision we had made before we established our first office: that Open Door Legal would be as physically accessible to the communities we served as possible.
When Virginia and I were deciding where to open our first office, we compared the map of the free legal aid providers with a map of need. We realized that, despite Bayview-Hunters Point having the highest need, there was not a single legal aid office in the neighborhood. The lack of physical accessibility is one reason that, as I mentioned earlier, we were flooded with cases so quickly after opening.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you protect yourself and Open Door Legal in the future?
Adrian Tirtanadi: Obviously, this is an incredibly stressful time, so we try to incorporate mindfulness as much as we can into our office culture. Some additions we have made to our staff benefits include a healthcare FSA for mental health expenses, emotional resilience coaching, and weekly remote meditation sessions. We also have a biweekly all-hands meeting so our team can connect and catch-up, despite being physically distant.
If we have a client in crisis or who needs extra support, we have a variety of partner organizations with whom we connect folks with in order to make sure that their full set of needs, from legal to emotional, are taken care of.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Adrian Tirtanadi: I believe that what we are doing in San Francisco is entirely unique. There are some organizations that are attempting a universal access method for very narrow sorts of civil legal needs, but none with a model like ours. We believe that this model, which is essentially like a general hospital but for legal needs, will transform poverty in San Francisco and is one of the most cost-effective ways to help our most marginalized neighbors. Right now, we are in three of San Francisco’s eleven districts. In the next five years, we hope to continue building public support throughout the city so that we can be available to all low-income San Franciscans.
Your final thoughts?
Adrian Tirtanadi: So many middle- and higher-income people very rarely deal with the sorts of legal problems our clients face, so they often don’t realize how tremendous of a problem lack of access is. Coronavirus has only exacerbated this divide. I started Open Door Legal because I truly believe that poverty will be dramatically reduced when everyone has access to the law. This pandemic makes that need all the more urgent.