Celebrating Social Work Month: Profession of Choice

By Joanne Hall

Social workers and lawyers make a winning team

Lawyers and social workers bring very different approaches to frontline client service but does that mean that the two professions should never meet?

Sorting life problems can seem like one big puzzle and the task of putting those pieces together can seem scary to many people – especially our most vulnerable. Being involved in any legal proceeding is stressful and if a person faces additional challenges of social or medical problems it becomes even more frightening. Standing up in court to speak to a judge; knowing where to turn for help in the community; understanding rights and next steps are all complicated pieces of any legal case.

The justice system makes it very difficult if not impossible for people to put pieces together alone – especially for our vulnerable clients who are often faced with a multitude of challenges. It is a puzzle that will never fit together easily.

Social workers bring skills to the legal setting that make a real difference

Social workers help clients connect to specialized community services; they accompany and support lawyers and paralegals to advocate on their behalf in courts or at hearings; they listen and deal with issues of depression and mental health. Early intervention by a social worker on a legal case brings very positive outcomes for the clients and for the lawyers on the case. Client problems are solved simultaneously, quickly and efficiently.

It is a winning combination. Nancy Singer, a social worker at Waterloo Region Community Legal Clinic, concurs: “When collaboration between lawyers and social workers occurs, the client benefits from the best of both world views and skill sets, and their legal and non-legal needs can be addressed effectively.”

Fresh eyes on how we deliver service to clients

Professionals are trained to work in specific ways according to rules of conduct and best practice.

The rules of conduct and best practices in law are very different than in social work. For example, lawyers are taught to be logical, use critical thinking and avoid emotional entanglement while social workers are taught to be emotionally supportive taking into account every person’s unique needs and basic worth.

“As a lawyer, I tend to focus on analyzing a person’s problem to find out if there is a legal solution- for example an appealable issue,” says Shannon Down, Executive Director of Waterloo Region Community Legal Clinic. “A social worker might spend more time figuring out how the client got into legal trouble in the first place and would try to help identify barriers the client might experience in trying to resolve their problem. These approaches are both valid and complementary.”

Sharing knowledge, training and best practices among professionals brings fresh eyes to how service is delivered. It broadens how professionals approach client cases—each side learns and sees new techniques, skills and results. This opens the door to a more collaborative and holistic service to vulnerable clients.

Low-income and vulnerable clients with legal issues often have complex cases that benefit from coordinated intervention by legal and social services. An approach that draws upon strengths that already exist within networks of community health, legal, immigration, disability, and social service agencies is a great way to provide clients with all of the different kinds of help they need for any one problem.

Nancy agrees about the importance of coordinated intervention as the occurrence of complex client problems continues to arise. She explains that legal problems arise in larger contexts that require additional services. Says Singer: “Clients’ issues are not typically only legal in nature, and they often struggle to separate the legal aspect from the complexity of the presenting matter.”

Hence, a collaborative team approach is one of the best ways to provide seamless and effective client service.

Education, training and practice in classroom and on-the-ground

The role social work plays in law is reinforced through the availability of interdisciplinary professional programs and training. Universities offer mixed law and social work degrees; college and university social work programs offer practicums in the legal field.

A while ago, Community & Legal Aid Services Programme (CLASP) at York University took on a social work student and it was such a positive experience that they added a social work component to the CLASP program. Any person eligible for a legal case with CLASP has an option to receive assistance from a social worker. The service is chosen by the client – not assigned by staff/clinic.

Once a person agrees to the social work service, the social work and law students work together on case files, share information, exchange knowledge, and bring a combined expertise to the results.

“The opportunity to provide legal and social work services to our clients has allowed CLASP to provide a more client-centred approach to resolving issues,” says Marian MacGregor, Clinic director of CLASP. “We know that the legal issues are just the tip of the iceberg. The opportunity for students to learn from each and to be exposed to different professions is a valuable learning opportunity for all involved. I am always delighted with the exchange of ideas and approaches that happen when law and social work together.”

A partnership to help simplify problems

Our low-income clients often face multiple challenges which complicate their lives. Social, cultural, language and economic conditions play a big part in the solution to any legal problem. Building strong community networks and “coordinating intervention” is a proven and effective way to help people solve their problems.

Networking between social workers and lawyers is one way to begin the new revolution to move closer to a change in our justice system where “access to justice” is broadened in scope to include access to a range of qualified and specialized professionals”. A change that means people have “access to any and all professionals” — lawyers, doctors, social workers; community workers, court workers or any other professional required to uncover and resolve legal needs. A change that marks a tremendous improvement in quality of client service.

Joanne Hall is a Communication Advisor at LAO. She has over ten years’ experience with LAO in a variety of areas including several years at College Park Duty Counsel Office.