Future Law

Addressing Access To Justice: The Future Is Now

access to justiceWe are excited to share with you some of our favorite moments from this year’s The Future Is Now Conference. On a warm, sunny May 18, nine speakers from across the country and approximately 400 law students, legal educators, attorneys, and members of the judiciary met at the Art Institute in Chicago.

Our speakers presented a range of future law topics from closing the access to justice gap, understanding the role of data in the profession, redefining the lawyer’s business model and her relationship with the client, and enabling diversity in the workplace.

The Future is Now 2.017 gathered leaders at the cutting edge of the legal industry to help practitioners better serve the public. The talks were videotaped and will be available on our website this summer.

In between the speaker’s talks, I moderated town hall discussions. The format allowed participants to comment and ask questions either from the microphones or by using our brand new 2Civility mobile app. The questions were displayed on a screen for all to see. Although we couldn’t address all the questions, it was great to allow the speakers to expand on their talks and to take the discussions to a deeper level.

I could tell you about the speakers and town hall discussions chronologically as the day progressed. Instead, in this post and the next two, I will reflect on three dominant themes that emerged throughout the day: access to justice, delivering value, and diversity.

Access to Justice Requires Delivering Legal Services in New Ways

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas set the access to justice theme as he welcomed participants and thanked them for being forward-looking about how our profession needs to change. Justice Thomas urged attendees to not lose sight of the human emotions involved in our work:

At the heart of every case is a human being. A person for whom this particular case means everything. . . . For the people involved, being in court is an extraordinary and often traumatic experience. What brings people to court? Injury, death, unemployment, divorce, child custody battles, the commission of a crime. For the people involved, the court’s decision can mean the world.

Justice Thomas noted that the charge of the Commission on Professionalism includes addressing how to better serve citizens who need our justice system. He told participants that “[it] should be your charge as well.” Throughout the day, speakers highlighted the country’s access to justice problem and proposed solutions to alleviate it.

New Technologies Provide Access to Justice

Chase Hertel, the Director of Business Development & Partnerships at Road to Status, remarked on technology’s impact on legal services.

Technology can be used to triage the legal needs of clients, connect with clients where they are whether at the airport or on the Internet, deliver legal services in somewhat unique ways, and most importantly, bridge the legal gap and help to modernize our profession.

Road to Status serves immigration clients by breaking down applications step-by-step, providing online consultations, and improving productivity for professionals through its Immigration Management Solutions platform. Through technology, Road to Status has streamlined a difficult process, enabling lawyers to serve more clients.

Chase also presented several takeaways for attorneys of all practice areas going forward. First, it is critical to be agile and make small, incremental improvements. His suggestion is to make client engagement easy and frictionless. For example, tools like DocuSign make the process effortless. Next, he suggested using checklists. Writing what’s in your head, putting it on paper, and sharing it with your client. This provides them with a road map for expectations through transparency and adds value to your relationship. Third, automate what you can. For example, MailChimp can be used to automate outreach to clients at regular intervals. Last, embrace new delivery models. Consider things like limited-scope arrangements and alternative fee arrangements. These new models can help modernize the profession and bridge the legal services gap. “It’s time to dig in and start doing,” he urged.

Can Changing The Forum Increase Access?

While Chase shared how to scale the efforts of individual lawyers, Prof. Ethan Katsh explained that access to justice is being addressed by changing the forum. Where is the world’s largest courthouse? According to Professor Katsh, it is not located in a traditional brick-and-mortar building. It is over the internet and on the phone in our pockets.

As a leading proponent of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), Ethan looked at three challenges to access going forward. One, conflict remains a growth industry. It continues to accelerate as our world becomes complex, generating disputes every day. Second, we need new tools to resolve these conflicts. We can either ignore or resolve rising disputes. However, he also explained that the next challenge we should meet is preventing disputes. The large pool of disputes arising from technology can be resolved or prevented through technology.

Ethan highlighted that, unfortunately, the dispute resolution process historically has ignored prevention. To prevent disputes, we need to know why they occur. To know why disputes occur, we need data. Once we have this data, we can begin to work on prevention. As consumers increasingly demand one click redress, technology will provide data and enable the industry to move from resolution to prevention, low value to high value disputes, and simple to complex issues.

Preventative Practices Close the Access to Justice Gap

Nicolle Schippers, Associate General Counsel at ARAG, an international legal insurance provider, built on the theme of gathering data by urging lawyers to focus on their relationship with clients and potential customers. Her first PowerPoint slide appeared totally out of focus. She used this metaphor to argue that our profession is too blurry for the average consumer. Simply put, members of the public don’t know what we do or how we can help them.

Nicolle challenged the audience to remove our lawyer filters and to analyze the industry from the consumer’s perspective. We cannot continue to look at the industry only as a lawyer would or we risk losing future business.

Legal check-ups are one way to clarify the blurriness. Events like divorce, childbirth, buying a house, and coping with end of life events are situations that consumers may understand as traumatic and emotional. They don’t necessarily recognize that these events also are fraught with legal issues that can have important, if not catastrophic effects.

Why don’t people visit attorneys with the same regularity that they commit to doctor’s visits? They don’t see the same value, or it would be the norm. To help people understand their needs, Nicolle urged, lawyers should have discussions about life events and the legal ramifications. Lawyers may proactively explain the legal context and the help that the law may provide. Such periodic consultations with an attorney can provide value to consumers and increase access to justice.

Nicolle also advanced another solution to the problem: legal insurance. The access gap diminishes as more people have opportunities to understand their legal needs. When people see value in lawyers, we can begin to bridge this gap. 90% of ARAG members say that legal insurance removes their stress. 90% say they will return to get preventative help and legal check-ups because they now understand the value.

Undoubtedly, information helps people better recognize when they have a legal problem and when they could benefit from the services of an attorney. Reorienting ourselves toward preventative care will educate consumers and help reduce the access to justice gap.

More than one speaker pointed out that the United States is far from the top of the World Justice Project’s ranking of countries on the factor of affordability and accessibility of civil legal services.  They used our embarrassing ranking as a call to action.

As we have written on this blog before, no one approach can be a panacea for the access to justice gap. But it is past time to take action.



The Commission’s legal intern from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Tommy Heiser, contributed to this post.



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