The American Bar Association is not just an association that protects its guild—the lawyers. The president of the ABA is pushing to better serve the public, even if it costs lawyers jobs.
William C. Hubbard, president of the ABA, has been outspoken in calling for innovation in legal services. He cites the traditional method of providing legal services isn’t the best at meeting the public’s needs. Recently he acknowledged that the ‘justice gap’ for those who can’t afford to pay for an attorney has not been closed despite lawyers’ efforts at delivering services without compensation.
The current system as it affects those who do not have access to justice is just broken and we need to fix it.
In a recent speech before the Tennessee Bar Association, Hubbard noted that many people don’t identify their problems as legal, don’t even think that a lawyer may be helpful, and that many instead are flocking to online services to resolve their civil disputes. And he cautioned that those technology services are not bound by any fiduciary obligations as lawyers are.
Wider innovation sought
Hubbard’s clarion call for lawyers to figure out a way to be more effective and efficient to serve the public also pervaded last month’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services co-sponsored by the ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and Stanford University School of Law. This event brought leaders together to develop action plans to combat the pressing issue of access to justice for all. Participants included legal professionals as well as representatives of other related fields.
The topics addressed included innovation beyond the legal sphere, challenges to innovation, the disparate experiences of the legal system from the perspective of different groups of clients, and programs to bridge the gap in the access to justice.
The challenges to innovation in the legal profession identified during the summit are tied to long-held traditions in the legal profession. Potential obstacles discussed included the regulation of the legal profession as well as the restricted pool of potential investors. If only those possessing law degrees are able to institute change in the legal profession, an optimal level of diversity of opinion and perspective is not available. In addition, obstacles to innovation in the legal profession are inherent in traditional firm structures and business models which bear little room for incentives to take the risks necessary for innovation.
One of the programs discussed as having potential to present a solution to access to justice issues is the involvement of limited license legal technicians (LLLTs), a development with roots in Washington state that we have been following on this blog. Some innovations discussed revolved around the increasing connections between technology and legal practice. The appearance of virtual law firms and online practice management might become the new reality of the legal profession in the future and may also provide new ways to bridge the gap in access to justice.
In addition, the summit’s speakers encouraged law schools to integrate new curriculum that emphasizes the possibility of the new technological frontier, allowing law students to be prepared for the legal market of the future, including developing skills such as online project management, automated document assembly, and e-discovery.
Foreshadowing Hubbard’s remarks in Tennessee, the summit also highlighted the potential for online legal aid clinics and online dispute resolution mechanisms. Speakers advocating for the integration of technology into practice emphasized that rather than taking work away from lawyers, the tools instead could open up new opportunities for lawyers who can become specialists in using this new technology.
What do potential clients want?
A major theme of the summit was to re-orient lawyers to key in to the clients’ perceptions of the legal system and the consumer’s point of view in determining the direction in which the future of the legal profession needs to be heading. Using this lens, one speaker on the access to justice issue noted that the greatest impediment to people seeking legal services might not be the cost involved.
Although the need for legal services may be great, research shows that underserved individuals are not bringing their problems to legal professionals because either 1) they don’t recognize a value may result from the handling of these problems through the justice system or they do not recognize their problems as ones that have legal solutions in the first place.
These potential clients believe that their problems are just a part of life or should be private concerns kept within the family or community.
Legal professionals who assist these clients must appear trustworthy and capable in the face of a client’s uncertainty and hesitation regarding the legal process. One innovation that could provide these potential clients with access to justice and access to the knowledge that there is a legal solution to their problems is to place connections to legal services within locations these individuals already turn to for help, such as hospitals or places of worship.
Overall, the presenters placed a focus on developing the means to bring legal services to those who might need them without even recognizing the fact and on genuinely caring about the concerns and needs of those seeking legal services.
Check out the online presentation and video highlights from the summit.
Jessica Saltiel, our intern from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, contributed to this post.