Qualitative Case Study Research in Organizations: Interprofessional Collaboration in Legal Aid Settings


The subject of this case is a qualitative comparative case study of three organizations that employ social workers and lawyers. This work grew out of a desire to understand the discrepancy between my positive experience as a social worker in a legal aid clinic and the negative portrayal of this professional collaboration in the academic literature. The limited body of writing on the topic was largely theoretical. I was interested in exploring this collaboration in its organizational context to augment these conceptual views with empirical data. Case study was deemed an appropriate method for this research because (1) it is a well-accepted method in organizational research, (2) it is especially useful for investigating a phenomenon such as social worker/lawyer collaboration in its context, and (3) it has particular value in situations where there is a limited body of knowledge and the potential for a new theoretical framework. Qualitative interview, observation, and document data collected from the three organizations were coded and analyzed with the assistance of the qualitative data analysis software package N6. Data analysis began with atheoretical free coding and moved on to theoretically based tree coding of a priori constructs. These processes resulted in themes related to the role of the social worker in legal settings and a new theoretical conceptualization of the collaborative relationship, which were validated through iterative and complementary data analysis strategies.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Describe three suitable situations for the use of case study methods
  • Outline five practical considerations when planning case study methods
  • Apply a rudimentary version of qualitative coding to narrative text

Project Overview and Context

This project grew out of a desire to reconcile the disconnect between my lived experience as a social worker in a legal aid clinic and what was written in the academic literature about collaboration between social workers and lawyers. I had very positive experiences working side-by-side with lawyers in agencies that provide legal services for people who are disadvantaged. However, the scholarly literature focused on inherent conflicts between the professions of social work and law that ostensibly preclude successful collaboration. This largely theoretical literature offered a variety of explanations for the supposed clash between social workers and lawyers without ever establishing that, in fact, conflict is the defining feature of this professional collaboration (see Barton & Byrne, 1975; Cook & Cook, 1963; Lau, 1983; Lowenstein & Waggoner, 1967; Weil, 1982). This gap in the empirical literature offered an ideal opportunity for a research project to examine organizational influences on collaboration between social workers and lawyers.

Case Study Design

The first step in planning this study was to determine what design and methods would provide data to answer my research question. Given the sparse empirical data on this topic, I concluded that I needed to start by investigating what collaboration between social workers and lawyers looked like in specific settings. The case study method was an obvious choice for this exploration because it is useful in situations such as this one where there is a limited body of knowledge and the potential to develop new theoretical frameworks (Eisenhardt, 1989; Zald, 1970). Case study is, by definition, an empirical method for investigating a phenomenon in context (Yin, 1994). I wanted to explore the phenomenon of collaboration between social workers and lawyers in the context of legal aid organizations, which is ideally suited to this method. Finally, case study has a long history in organizational research and is a well-accepted approach in this area.

The difference between what the literature described and my own experience drove my interest in this topic. It was clear that a case study of one organization would not provide the breadth of information to answer my question. Therefore, this study employed a multiple case study research strategy. Data from multiple cases allowed me to compare and contrast the collaboration in different settings. In addition, evidence from more than one case is often more compelling than evidence from a single case as it follows a logic of repetition (Stake, 1995; Yin, 1994). The plan for this project was to recruit legal aid agencies that employed both social workers and lawyers to study as individual cases, as well as to compare and contrast with one another.

Considerations in Recruiting Organizations

The most salient issue in planning this project was finding legal aid clinics that were willing to participate as subjects. Unique to recruiting agencies that provide legal services is the level of concern about privacy. At the very core of the lawyer’s professional responsibility is maintaining the client’s confidentiality and privilege. While confidentiality is critical to many professions, the legal and ethical nature of the lawyer–client relationship differs in that there are almost no legal circumstances under which an attorney can be required to divulge information received from a client. That same level of legal and ethical protection does not apply to third parties present in meetings between lawyers and clients. Although remote, the possibility that I could be required to divulge client confidences that I learned of in the course of data collection loomed large over the recruiting process.

In consultation with a number of attorneys, I created a data collection plan that respected attorney ethical and legal obligations and provided as much assurance as possible that my presence would not compromise their work. First, I informed agency administrators and potential subjects that I had no interest in contact with any of their clients. I would not ask to sit in on meetings, review client files, attend court, or place myself in any other position where I would have access to confidential client information. Second, we created a confidentiality agreement that met my research criteria and took into account potential attorney concerns. This agreement was a useful mechanism for affirming that I would not disclose private information. However, such a contract does not offer the legal and ethical protections necessary to alleviate attorney concerns about client privilege. Finally, while it is common in qualitative research to digitally record interviews and other spoken data, I determined that I would not use any recording devices in the course of data collection. I was able to assure potential participants that the only record of what I saw and heard during my data collection would be in the form of my handwritten notes. It was impossible to anticipate every situation in which my presence had the potential to impose upon client confidentiality and privilege, but every effort was made to avoid such a situation.

Gaining Access

After initial conversations with administrators of legal aid agencies in the city I had chosen to use as the home base for my research, one organization had agreed to participate and two others had tentatively agreed. Although the attorney administrators of some agencies I contacted saw value in this research, many were not willing to make the accommodations required for me to be present while legal business was being conducted. In the first organization that agreed to participate, I had a personal and professional connection with the administrator who was unwavering in his support for this project. The second organization that consented was also one in which I had a professional association with a staff attorney. The staff attorney was invested in seeing the results of my research and held a number of meetings with the managing partner to explain the study and his reasons for wanting to participate before the managing partner agreed to meet with me. Even with this internal support, it was only with a letter of support from the administrator of the first agency I had recruited that this administrator agreed to participate. Finally, after the other agency that had tentatively agreed to participate ultimately refused, I used personal and professional contacts to reach out to administrators of clinics in other parts of the country. With those connections and the letter of support from the administrator of the first research site, I was able to secure a third subject agency in the Southwest United States. Ultimately, I was able to gain access to three organizations that employed social workers and lawyers which, given the depth of the analysis I was planning, was a sufficient number of subjects for this multiple case study.

Equally as important as gaining access to the organizations was getting buy-in from the social worker in each organization. The primary purpose of these organizations is to provide legal services; therefore, each organization employs many attorneys, but only one social worker. Without the cooperation of the social worker, an agency would be useless to my study. In the first two organizations, I had prior professional experience with the social workers, and they had an interest in the outcome of this work. In the third organization, I did not know the social worker. However, the social worker from the first agency was acquainted with her and was able to introduce me to her. It was certainly much less complicated to gain the cooperation of the social workers, yet their participation was as essential as that of the administrators.

Qualitative Data

While I could conceive of ways to investigate my question using survey data and quantitative analysis, my interest was in a more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon. I wanted to move beyond the focus on isolated theoretical concepts that was the norm in the literature on this topic, and get a more vibrant empirical picture of the collaboration between social workers and lawyers. I determined that qualitative data were best suited to fulfilling this goal. Three types of qualitative data were collected in each organization. First, semi-structured interviews were conducted with social workers, attorneys, administrators, and other relevant employees. Questions on the interview schedule were designed to elicit information pertinent to the theories that informed the research design. Interviews were structured around these questions but were flexible enough that I could probe further into topics of interest or discuss topics not included on the interview protocol. The second form of data were observations of the daily workings of the organizations, including meetings, classes, and other events as appropriate. Finally, public documents created by each organization were analyzed and became part of the case study database. Each of these cases was studied in depth to gather as much information as possible about the organization as the context for the collaboration between social workers and lawyers (Eisenhardt, 1989).

Data Collection

Start dates, but no end dates, were set for data collection in each of the agencies. I assumed that I would be in each organization for approximately 2 weeks, but I did not want to bind myself to a firm deadline should I need or want to spend more time in one of the settings (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). As it worked out, 2 weeks was sufficient time to gather the necessary data in each agency. With a focus on the role of the social worker, my default mode of data collection was to shadow the social worker in each organization. I took notes on what the social worker did, who she interacted with, and what meetings she attended. I scheduled time during the 2 weeks in each organization to formally interview the social worker but also took notes on details that arose in our conversations about her daily activities. I was able to set up meetings with other individual subjects, access relevant documents, and attend a variety of meetings with the assistance of the social worker in each setting. I interviewed interns, fellows, and support staff in each organization, adapting my interview protocol to include questions relevant to their particular role in the organization.

Informed Consent

Even with blanket permission to study these organizations as a whole, for ethical reasons, it was necessary to obtain informed consent from each person I interviewed. In most cases, I was introduced to members of the staff by either the administrator or the social worker so that agency employees knew that my presence in the workplace was legitimate. Every individual I approached about participating in the study agreed, though a couple of subjects seemed reticent to answer all of my questions. Some nuance in the data may have been lost because of these less than forthcoming interviews. However, in each organization, I reached data saturation, which is the point at which no new information was being gleaned from interviews. Given this, I am confident that the less detailed interviews did not have a negative impact on my findings.

Managing in the Field

I organized my days in each organization around the social worker’s schedule. I arrived in the morning when she did and left when she left, or later if I had scheduled interviews or observations. Generally, I collected data for 8 to 10 hr each day. Because I was not using an electronic recording device, I wrote many, many pages of notes each day. I then spent each evening typing notes into text files. While this made for some very long days, it followed best practices for preserving the accuracy of the data. Working with my field notes the same day I created them, filling in blanks in my written record and adding information about context, was the best way to assure that the passage of time did not cloud my memory. I also wrote research memos each evening. In these memos, I answered a standard set of questions such as, “what am I learning?” and “how does this case differ from the last?” These memos were also the place I recorded my thoughts about and reactions to what I had seen and heard that day. The memos were part of a process in which I reflected on the data I had collected each day and generated questions to ask or observations to follow up on the next day in the field (Van Maanen, 1988). In this way, I was able to use what I learned each day to deepen the overall inquiry.

Preparing Data

Creating text files and analytic memos while still in the field collecting data was the first step in preparing data for analysis. Overlapping these processes is consistent with the philosophical underpinnings of grounded theory and case study research. This iterative process of repeatedly going back and forth between the two activities allows for adjustments to data collection while it is ongoing. Preparing data in the field this way meant that there was no delay between the end of data collection and the beginning of data analysis.

Managing Data Text Files

Data were analyzed using N6 computer software developed and sold by QSR International. While there were more updated versions of the software at the time, the practical consideration of cost weighed in favor of using the program to which I had access. This software first offered a system for organizing text files in a variety of ways. I was able to store files in configurations that corresponded to the way I planned to use the data at a given time. For example, I had files stored in separate folders that contained all of the interview data from one site, interview data for all of the social workers across sites, and all of the interview data for attorneys who practiced in the same area of law. It is possible to manage this type of filing system without computer assistance, but the software saved a great deal of time.

Data Analysis


The first step in analyzing qualitative data is coding. Coding is the process of reading data text files created during data collection and assigning codes to significant sections. Codes are one- or two-word titles for ideas or themes found in the text. Codes are assigned to phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or more substantial sections of writing that are relevant to the research question. For this project, I used two different types of coding. First, I engaged in free coding where I worked to set aside preconceived ideas about what themes might exist in the data and read each text file with a mind open to seeing what topics emerged from the text itself. In this process, I created and assigned codes as they emerged from the text. The second round of coding involved looking for a priori constructs based on the theoretical foundations of the study. The interview protocol was designed to elicit information on these particular concepts.

For example, in all three agencies, the social workers supervised interns from local masters programs in social work. In her interview, one social worker described the process she used to assign her students to cases. In the first round of free coding, I tagged these pieces of data—phrases, sentences, and paragraphs—with the code “Assigning Students.” At that point in the data analysis, I had no way of knowing whether this code would ultimately be relevant to answering my research question, but with this concept identified and coded, I could see at a later point in the analysis if it would be significant or not. Theoretical coding was a second process in which I assigned codes to all of the text data from the list of theory-based a priori codes created when the study was designed. As with free coding, there was no assumption that any of these codes would prove significant to the final theory.

Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis

The data analysis software allowed me to create a nearly infinite number of codes and was flexible in the ways these codes could be used. For example, if an idea emerged in the free coding and was also an a priori construct, it could be coded as both a free code and as an a priori code. The software allowed me to merge those codes when appropriate or use them individually. Each code could be identified by individual subject (i.e., Lawyer A in Organization 1), by organization alone, by profession alone, and so on. With this amount of flexibility, I was able to compare and contrast a variety of codes to discern how they worked together to create overall themes that would be used in later stages of analysis to develop a new theoretical construct.

Identifying Themes

As was the case in each step of this process, there was no discrete point at which data coding ended, and data analysis began, so it is important to note that much of this was happening at the same time as I was coding data. There was, however, a point at which all data were coded. These codes could be added to, deleted, or changed, but all of the text had been assigned a code. After this, the majority of the activity moved to analyzing codes rather than text. Using the method described by Eisenhardt (1989), post-coding data analysis consisted of two separate elements: within-case analysis and between-case analysis.

Within-Case Analysis

At the heart of within-case analysis was a detailed written case study for each site. The purpose of this step was to become as intimately familiar with each case as possible before comparing or contrasting cases with one another. The first step toward writing a comprehensive case study on an individual organization was writing answers to each of the questions on the interview protocol using data from interviews, observation, and document review collected at that agency. Various functions of the software allowed me to collect pieces of text data that had been coded as relevant to each question in one place. Compiling this amount of data was tedious, but it would have been a great deal more cumbersome without the assistance of the qualitative data analysis software. These compiled data were used as evidence to construct responses to the protocol questions. The resulting answers were organized by agency to provide a picture of the emerging themes in each organization and formed the basis for the in-depth case study of each organization. Tentative themes related to organizational influences on social worker/lawyer collaboration emerged from these narratives. These preliminary themes were noted in the narratives, as well as in analytic memos, which also became part of the case study database. Care was taken not to reach premature conclusions about the fit and value of these tentative themes, but they served as a useful starting point for the between-case analysis.

Between-Case Analysis

Between-case analysis involves comparing and contrasting cases with one another by analyzing data in three different ways. This process serves as a tool to avoid reaching premature or false conclusions that may be present when focused on a single case or when using only one method of analysis (Eisenhardt, 1989).

The first strategy in between-case analysis involves selecting themes of interest and looking for within-group similarities and between-group differences for each category. Building on the previous example, I might have chosen the code “Assigning Students.” I used the software to compile all of the data tagged with that code, and with all of these data in one place, I was able to see similarities and differences in how social work students were assigned to cases in each of the three agencies. This process of compiling, comparing, and contrasting data was repeated with all themes of interest.

The second tactic in between-case analysis is to select pairs of cases and to list similarities and differences between each pair. By looking at all possible pairings of my three research sites, I was forced to look for differences where I may have been convinced that there were none and to look for similarities where it seemed there were only differences. An example of this was that one of my research sites was a federally funded provider of legal assistance and another was a university-based legal aid clinic. At first glance, these organizations seemed vastly different in the ways that they were organized, funded, and staffed. However, when tasked with the specific goal of finding similarities, I was able to see that although the organizational charts in these agencies looked very different, in practice their work was organized in a similar way.

The third procedure in the process of between-case analysis involves dividing data from all three organizations by form. In this approach, data forms (interviews, observations, and documents) were examined individually with an eye toward exploiting each for all possible insight. A pattern found in one data form could be strengthened by corroborating evidence from another form. An apparent pattern in two forms could be strengthened or rejected based on conflicting evidence from the third form. In one case, when asked in the interview about their agency’s mission, not one lawyer said anything about interdisciplinary practice as a part of the core mission. However, data from document review showed that the written mission of the organization was to provide legal services in an interdisciplinary team. This analysis strategy was vital in bringing this discrepancy to light.

As the above examples demonstrate, the methodical application of between-case analysis strategies augments information gleaned from within-case analysis. The analytic memos that result from this process form the basis for the next steps of data analysis.

Shaping Hypotheses

The ultimate goal of this process was to construct theory about the influences of individual, organizational, and institutional factors on collaboration between social workers and lawyers. Analytic memos created during within-case and between-case analysis were the starting place for shaping hypotheses and developing theory. Theory was emerging from the data and was fleshed out in these memos. It was then compared with the evidence from each case to assess fit. Key to this step in the process was continually comparing theory and data while iterating toward a theory that tightly fit the data. As is seen in the previous descriptions of the data analysis process, these steps did not proceed in an orderly fashion one following the next. Instead, each step of the data analysis process was visited and re-visited as themes were made more explicit by other stages of the process.


The theme that surfaced time and again in these data was that there was no clear definition of the social worker’s role in any of these agencies. In different ways, social workers themselves, administrators, and attorneys said that they did not have a clear comprehensive idea of how the social worker fit into the legal work of their organizations. It became apparent that many of the areas that lacked clarity were those that had been identified in the scholarly literature as areas of conflict between the professions of social work and law. These data indicate that the fundamental characteristic of the collaboration between social workers and lawyers is not conflict, it is ambiguity. The three social workers in this study experienced the ambiguity regarding their role in these legal settings in one of two ways, either as an inherent problem or as an opportunity. One social worker expressed discomfort with the ambiguity. She wanted her agency to provide more explicit and formal structures for mundane tasks such as scheduling meetings, as well as more abstract activities like negotiating ethical conflicts and deciding when it was appropriate for her to work on a case. The other two social workers experienced the uncertainty as freedom to perform their work as independent and trusted professionals. Each offered examples of the ways that they used the latitude provided by ambiguity about their role to creatively work with clients in ways that would not have been possible in other settings. This finding that the working relationship between social workers and lawyers is characterized by ambiguity rather than conflict has the potential to change both the academic conversation about and the practice of collaboration between social workers and lawyers.

Practical Lessons Learned

From negotiating with potential subject organizations to analyzing multi-level data, research on organizations is complicated. The narrative above centers on some key steps in the process of qualitative case study research in organizations. I also discovered two significant lessons that apply to the research process and well beyond.

Be Prepared

I had written and re-written my research proposal. I had planned and re-planned my time in the field. In spite of that preparation, things happened in the field that I had not anticipated or that were simply not covered in the books. When this happened, I relied on the fact that I was not only prepared with a research plan, I was prepared with theoretical and practical knowledge which informed every step of my research process. I had read many books and articles about case study research, qualitative research, and organizational theory. I read case study after case study, and I had consulted with researchers who had carried out their own qualitative research. I may not have anticipated the precise dilemmas I would face in the field, but I had the knowledge I needed to make informed decisions when they arose. Was information shared over lunch with members of the staff confidential? Was it legitimate to interview a former employee of the organization because it was not in my original plan? How did I deal with the subject who had second thoughts about participating? It was only because of the preparation I had done before entering the field that I was able to make accurate and ethical decisions about these and other issues that arose. There is no substitute for being prepared.

Be Authentic

I was particularly cognizant of the fact that I was infringing on professional relationships that rely on confidentiality. I was asking detailed questions on private work matters. I was following people around their workplace recording their every move. I was doing all of this with people I had, for the most part, just met and with the end goal of putting all of this information into writing. Negotiating this process was often not about theoretical understanding of the research process, it was simply a matter of relating to research subjects as human beings. People needed to see that I could be trusted with their private information and that I cared about them and their work. Without a basic level of trust, there would have been no research. There is no substitute for being authentic.


In designing this study, my primary concern was using methods tailored to answering my research question about the individual, organizational, and institutional influences on collaboration between social workers and lawyers. Case study was deemed an appropriate method for this research because (1) it is a well-accepted method in organizational research, (2) it is especially useful for investigating a phenomenon such as social worker/lawyer collaboration in its organizational context, and (3) it has particular value in situations where there is a limited body of knowledge and the potential for a new theoretical framework. By following well-established case study and qualitative data analysis methods, and forming authentic human connections with research participants, this qualitative comparative case study produced a deep and nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of collaboration between social workers and lawyers in legal settings.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • Under what circumstances would you choose to use case study methods for a research project rather than other methods?
  • There are always challenges to doing research with human subjects, such as the lawyers’ concern about confidentiality in the above case study. Brainstorm a list of populations you might want to use in a research study and consider the challenges you might face in recruiting and interviewing these subjects. What steps would you take to overcome these challenges to carry out your project?
  • What do you see as the pros and cons of using words (a qualitative approach), rather than numbers (a quantitative approach), as data?
  • Design an imaginary qualitative case study:
    • Identify a phenomenon and its context for your project.
    • What about this phenomenon would you be interested in knowing more about? Craft a research question.
    • How would you recruit subject(s) to participate in your study and what practical and ethical issues might affect this process?
    • What forms of qualitative data would you need to answer your question and how might you collect them?
    • If you did not have access to qualitative data analysis software, how might you work through the coding process with hard copies of data?
    • What types of reading and other preparation would you need to do to be prepared to conduct this study?

Further Reading

Berg, J. M., Grant, A. M., & Johnson, V. (2010). When callings are callings: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings. Organization Science, 21, 973994.
Eisenhardt, K. M. (1991). Better stories and better constructs: The case for rigor and comparative logic. Academy of Management Review, 16, 620627.
Goode, W. J., & Hatt, P. K. (1952). Methods in social research. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 250279.
Ilgen, D. R., & Hollenbeck, J. R. (1991). The structure of work: Job design and roles. In M. D.Dunnette, & L. M.Hough (Eds.), The handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 165207). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
Meyer, J. W. & Scott, W.R. (1983). Organizational environment: Ritual and rationality. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.
SymonG. (Ed.). (1994). Qualitative methods in organizational research: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Tenbrunsel, A. E., Galvin, T. L., Neale, M. A., & Bazerman, M. H. (1996). Cognitions in organizations. In HardyC (Ed.), Handbook of organization studies (pp. 313337). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Wrzesniewski, A. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 179201.


Barton, P. N., & Byrne, B. (1975). Social work services in a legal aid setting. Social Casework, 56, 226234.
Cook, J. D., & Cook, L. M. (1963). The lawyer and the social worker-compatible conflict. Buffalo Law Review, 12, 410419.
Eisenhardt, K. M. (1989). Building theories from case study research. The Academy of Management Review, 14, 532550.
Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
Lau, J. A. (1983). Lawyers vs. social workers: Is cerebral hemisphericity the culprit?Child Welfare, 62, 2129.
Lowenstein, D. H., & Waggoner, M. J. (1967). Neighborhood law offices: The new wave in legal services for the poor. Harvard Law Review, 80, 805850.
Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales from the field: On writing ethnography. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Weil, M. (1982). Research on issues in collaboration between social workers and lawyers. Social Service Review, 56, 393405.
Yin, R. K. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (
2nd ed.
). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Zald, M. N. (1970). Power in organizations. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.
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