By Ann Rubinstein, HAC Senior Managing Attorney

The mission of the Homeless Action Center is to provide high-quality public benefits advocacy for free to unhoused and disabled residents of Alameda County. HAC’s vision is a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, everyone receives determined and rigorous pursuit of their legal rights, and basic needs such as housing and health care are recognized both as individual rights and community obligations.

At HAC, we strive to incorporate our mission and vision throughout every aspect of our work. One way we look to achieve this is through staff training. To provide high-quality benefits advocacy we provide comprehensive, substantive SSI/SSDI and public benefits training to new staff attorneys and advocates. We also provide ongoing training to existing staff to ensure advocates stay up to date with any changes in these fields and keep up their general knowledge. To implement our vision, we include trainings on “soft” skills, DEI topics, and professional development.

When I was hired at HAC, my training consisted of sitting down with a managing attorney and briefly looking through the HAC training manual. It took less than an afternoon. Although I had some prior experience as an attorney and was able to learn on the job, I don’t think anyone felt this training “program” was adequate. A few years ago, when I participated in the One Justice executive fellowship program, I decided to focus my capstone project on improving training at HAC. That was the basis for some additional changes that have made our training program at HAC what it is today.

As of about 18 months ago, we now divide training into two distinct areas, through the work of a new staff training committee and a continuing education committee. HAC also has a mentoring committee that focuses on the mentor portion of new staff onboarding. Gone are the days of leafing through the manual with a supervisor.

Onboarding New Staff

New staff onboarding has evolved as HAC has grown. After my capstone project, we went from doing a one-day training to doing more focused, specific trainings with PowerPoints until we eventually had over two weeks of solid up-front training. This much training may have been a few steps too far, though; after a staff survey and focus group discussion, we sought to integrate more dynamic aspects into the training along with instructor-led lecture trainings. We began integrating experiential learning with the training topics. These experiential learning components used to come after the entire training period was complete, now they are interwoven into the training. For example, new staff will shadow a drop-in shift, then have a training on providing brief services and client centered services, then shadow another drop-in shift.

Prior to the pandemic we had been doing three weeks of training, with shadowing opportunities for observing hearings, drop-in shifts, and case work, with mentoring woven in. During the pandemic, shadowing was not possible; we shortened the training module significantly and new staff were trained through remote trainings on Teams.

As staff came back into the office more and began to do in-person trainings and activities again, we took the time to examine the onboarding process and refine it even further. The new staff training committee was formed and we worked to reformulate training in a way that worked after the pandemic. We determined that three weeks of training was too long and intensive. New staff training is now back to two weeks of training to start, with most of the lecture and PowerPoint trainings in the morning. The afternoons are spent shadowing on-duty shifts, shadowing outreach, meeting with mentors, and, by the second week, beginning to work on cases.

After on-the-job learning for about two months, new staff have one training a week for two months. The goal is to find the right balance between providing enough up-front training to allow new staff to provide high-quality benefits advocacy and not overwhelming them with too much abstract (at that point) information. Shadowing opportunities and two months between the first part of training and the second give context for what new staff are working on and allow them to become familiar with our client population.

As mentioned, new staff are trained in both hard and soft skills. Both are essential for providing high quality legal representation while treating each client with dignity and respect. In the first two weeks of training, we cover the basics of Social Security law and advocacy at initial, reconsideration, and hearing levels. We also train on the other public benefits for which our clients may be eligible, including General Assistance, Medi-Cal, CalFresh, and CalWORKs.

We also provide training on how to provide client-centered services and ways to work with clients with mental health conditions. Everyone is trained on de-escalation techniques and on use of HAC’s client database. In the subsequent training after two months on the job, we present on some substantive areas including writing briefs, reading medical records, and working with vocational experts. We also focus on some professional development skills, including time management. Finally, right before a staff attorney’s first hearing, we provide an opportunity to do a mock hearing.

On top of the structured training, each new advocate and attorney has a supervisor and a mentor to assist them in reaching their goals as they start their work at HAC. The mentoring committee worked to come up with a loose structure for what support and shadowing opportunities mentors should be providing, with ideas of skills to pass on. The mentor program is a companion to the individual supervision each new staff member receives. HAC mentors are not supervisors; they are fellow staff members and serve as a person the new staff member may be more comfortable checking in with about certain questions and concerns. Mentors meet with their mentees about once a week for a four-month period.

Ideally the combination of learning modules and experiences gives new staff a good groundwork to begin providing high quality legal services while treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Staff Continuing Education

HAC is also invested in ensuring that our existing advocacy staff have a firm foundation in Social Security law, updates in the law, advocacy skills, and soft skills. Our continuing education committee (CEC) formed to focus on training existing staff. The CEC conducted a survey of all staff to determine areas in which trainings are wanted, areas in which staff feel they could improve their knowledge, and areas in which they could serve as a trainer. There was excellent survey participation which gave the CEC a lot of data to inform their work. Based on feedback from the survey, the third Tuesday morning of every month is now reserved for all-staff training.

Since the survey was completed, we have done Tuesday morning trainings on Vocational Experts, how to get Identification Documents for clients, Medi-Cal and Medicare, Materiality, and Implicit Bias. We have upcoming trainings scheduled on Ethics, Medical Experts, and Overpayments. Our goal is to offer a mix of advocacy, appellate advocacy, DEI, and professional development trainings. Some trainings we attempt to offer every year such as de-escalation, implicit bias and microaggressions, and ethics. We do many of our trainings with in-house trainers, but for topics outside our expertise (such as de-escalation and implicit bias), we utilize outside experts.

In addition to our in-house trainings, HAC encourages staff to take advantage of training opportunities in the broader legal services and general community, including PLI (Practicing Law Institute) trainings. Although the majority of HAC staff provide SSI and SSDI direct services, not all do, and we hope to provide a number of trainings that are helpful to the non-SSI advocates as well. In-house trainings generally take place at either our West Oakland or South Berkeley office, with an option for staff who cannot make it in person to attend remotely. Where applicable, we are able to offer Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) credit for participation in trainings.

Finally, we do offer specific training for our managers and offer them opportunities to access outside trainings as well. HAC puts a lot of time and effort into our training modules and professional development because we want all staff to be supported and happy at work. Having the tools and knowledge needed to do our jobs well cultivates a positive workplace, and having well-trained managers also promotes a supportive workplace.

Learning on the job can often be a euphemism for “sink or swim.” At HAC, we are proud of the way that our training for both new and established staff has developed. As we have become more intentional about training, we continue to try to improve so that we can provide our clients with high-quality public benefits advocacy while treating everyone with dignity and respect.