What if the best way to serve people in need of legal aid to stop trying to dedicate pro bono hours to directly representing them?
To suggest that there’s an access to justice gap is not controversial. Here, I want to propose a moneyball approach to closing that gap that could be: lawyers should stop representing people one-to-one when completing their annual pro bono work. For most, there’s simply a better way for them to spend their time, assuming their goal is to help the most unrepresented people get high quality legal help.
To get arms around the scope of the problem, here are some of the more overwhelming figures about our collective failure to serve the legal needs of our communities:
- about 110 million Americans qualify for free legal assistance, but there are less than 7,000 legal aid attorneys who offer these services;
- in some jurisdictions, more than 80% of litigants appear in court pro se because they cannot afford a lawyer;
- roughly 1 million cases are turned away every year by legal aid organizations because they don’t have the capacity to help.
This isn’t to say attorneys aren’t dedicating a lot of time to pro bono work. One survey showed they’re spending more than 4 million hours a year on it. Law students chip in another 2.2 million pro bono hours a year. Still, as the numbers above would suggest, it’s not nearly enough to meet the need. Pile on the threatened defunding of the Legal Services Corporation, which helps 2 million people a year, and the bleak picture begins to look even bleaker.
I think there’s a solution, and one that won’t require any more dedication than the existing spirit of volunteerism that already exists among practicing lawyers. Here’s the proposal: instead of asking attorneys to volunteer to represent people one-to-one, let’s ask them to volunteer their time to learn legal innovation/technology techniques, then ask them to use their pro bono time to apply those new skills to help legal aid organizations become more efficient.
Doing it this way can move the needle. Consider the impact of the A2J Author & LawHelpInteractive projects, which have helped more than 2.6 million people in the past decade through guided interviews and document assembly. Their success is based on the hard work of a small, hungry cadre of law students and tech-savvy professionals working for legal aid organizations who have taken the time to learn how to automate documents. This type of tool works, too, in some contexts, just as well as a live, human attorney.
So, if we could change the way lawyers spend their volunteer time, could we go from helping 2.6 million to 5.2 million? From 5.2 to 26 million? And by doing so, could we give full-time legal aid attorneys the flexibility to work on the truly hard cases, and use volunteer-built tech tools to resolve the simpler challenges? I think so.
The specific tools lawyers trained on would be based on the organizations’ needs, though one can envision learning to automate documents and create guided interviews to post on LawHelpInteractive; training on implementing Clio, MetaJure, or another case management system; building expert systems on QnAMarkup; or employing process improvement methods using Legal Lean Sigma or another similar method (Seyfarth Shaw has actually experimented with training legal aid leaders in this area).
If this idea were to be brought to life, the basic mechanism would be as follows:
(1) a volunteer lawyer would complete training in a specific skill/tool/technique;
(2) after training, the lawyer would (either individually or in a team) be paired with a legal aid organization with a need in the area in which the lawyer trained;
(3) the lawyer would complete a total of 50 hours (training hours would count) toward completing the project and/or doing check-ins after the project was completed;
(4) the project having been completed, the legal aid organization would benefit from the newly implemented efficiency, the lawyer would return to his or her firm with a new skill, and the lawyer’s regular employer would potentially be able to implement it too to improve their own for-profit work.
As a side-benefit, other stakeholders might be helped, too. The lawyer, having completed her service, would now have a new, unique skill, which could advance her career. The lawyer’s full-time employer would benefit from similar efficiency-based skills that the lawyer brings back. There are even opportunities to match people, say corporate law department lawyers with firm lawyers on a project, which might foster tighter relationships between them (or, for that matter, create new relationships). Who knows, it might even help promote increasing acceptance of technology among practicing lawyers, which would pay dividends for all who interact with the legal system, including paying clients.
Hard questions still have to be answered:
- who will run the training?
- who will match volunteers and legal aid organizations?
- how will we test the effectiveness of these efforts? Will pro bono volunteers dislike it because they don’t get to interact with live clients?
- will legal aid attorneys be receptive to outsiders proposing to change the way they work?
These are questions worth asking, and working through, because the potential upside could help a lot of people in need of legal help, and also benefit many others indirectly. For now, though, I propose we try it. Find a few trainers, a small cadre of attorneys willing to be trained, a few legal aid organizations willing to be guinea pigs, and run a pilot. If the data bears out, we can worry about scaling from there.