Pro Bono for Financial Empowerment

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“Holistic pro bono” is an idea whose time may have come. When used in the legal pro bono community, the term refers to supplying a needy client with help that may go beyond legal help to include help from other professionals such as housing counselors, addiction experts, accountants, technology specialists, and so on.

The idea may have just had a substantial boost from the work of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”), the Federal agency created by the Dodd-Frank law and charged with protecting consumers of financial products and services. While the agency has regulatory and enforcement power, Congress also charged it broadly with educating consumers in financial matters.

Underlying the financial education part of its charge, the likely assumption is that nearly all consumers could benefit from knowing more about household budgeting, cash flow, credit reporting, limits on bill collecting, and a whole array of other financial matters that touch nearly everyone. Education in “financial literacy” is, of course, not new. But it seems quite unlikely that the many sources for financial literacy education reach many of those who need it most. Finance is hard, and a subject that sounds boring and inaccessible to many. A person being hounded by creditors, or refused a job on account of a poor credit score, seems very unlikely to see even a free course in “financial literacy” to be part of a solution.

One front in the Agency’s approach has been to offer consumers “financial empowerment,” through a delivery model different enough to warrant a different name. Indeed, the agency’s delivery model for its empowerment education could well be unique and is certainly unique to this subject matter. The model is to put powerful financial “tools” into the hands of those who work with consumers and teach those providers to identify the tool(s) a given client may need so the provider can then educate the client in how to use the tool(s). To give a simple example, one of the “tools” is a form to capture a consumer’s cash flow over time. The idea is to allow the consumer to recognize points during the month when she is out of cash so that she can adjust her habits to avoid running short (and therefore having to borrow money, bounce a check, or run into default on a bill). If, when working with a consumer, the service provider recognizes that the client has a “cash flow problem,” she will teach the client how to use one or more of the cash flow budgeting tools and begin to fix the problem.

It is a safe bet that nearly every client of a pro bono lawyer (whether their primary problem is located in family law, immigration law, criminal law, or credit and business law) will also be experiencing some financial problems that will get worse unless attended to. The idea is that the lawyer will append to the “primary” work that brought the client in a little bit of financial help, thereby giving the client an extra boost. Clients who would not have dreamed of attending a free financial literacy class or of obtaining credit counseling may be exposed to financial education through a tool that can actually improve their financial lives. The toolkit – Your Money, Your Goals – may thus reach people that have been heretofore unreachable and perhaps most in need of tools to handle personal finance.

Several other features of this delivery method suggest that it holds great promise. First, the financial education is targeted to specific need; it follows a diagnosis by the service provider that tailors the education to the most pressing client problems. This contrasts strongly with more generalized “financial literacy” education that may or may not connect with the problems that brought the consumer there in the first place. This CFPB approach thus treats financial education incrementally: it delivers a small amount of real help connected to an identified problem. Second, because it is targeted to help with a particular, concrete financial problem of the client’s, it is not abstract. The client learns to use the tool(s) in her own situation thereby anchoring the learning with actual practice. Learning of this kind is far more likely to “stick” than something more abstract, divorced from a real situation. Clients are far more likely to understand and absorb learning that is directed to a real problem that they are experiencing.

Third, the entire toolkit is drafted in a “consumer-friendly” way that makes it usable as a consumer self-help manual. If the provider’s time with the client is short, this enables the provider simply to point the client to the most promising tools and urge her to learn about them and use them herself. This will, once again, result in stronger client learning because using the tools makes the learning operational and likely to be more resilient.

To make it all work, pro bono lawyers and others who work with consumers need training with the toolkit (so they know what tools are available and how to use them). To this end, the Agency is training a coterie of trainers around the country who may be available to train or advise legal services staffs, social workers, pro bono lawyers, and others. To inquire about training opportunities, please contact empowerment@cfpb.gov. The toolkits, written for different kinds of providers, and training manuals to go with them are freely available at the CFPB’s website, www.consumerfinance.gov/your-money-your-goals/

Elevating financial sophistication among consumers in our population is an enormous task, one that will foster better consumer self-protection and financial welfare and improve our economy as well. The situation has not likely become appreciably better with the many excellent efforts at financial literacy education currently available. The CFPB’s financial empowerment program very different approach to this task, to take it one client at a time, is new; if it takes off, it carries great promise.

William Woodward

William Woodward

William J. Woodward, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at Santa Clara University School of Law, a Professor Emeritus at Temple University, and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service.

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One Response to Pro Bono for Financial Empowerment

  1. Pingback: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) Releases New Tool Called “Your Money Your Goals” For Financial Empowerment | Common Good

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