By: Erica Cecilia Adams
Three out of four litigants are unrepresented by counsel and eighty-six percent of low-income Americans with a civil legal problem receive inadequate or no legal help. The American Bar Association explains that marginalized groups are often vulnerable to abuses and face significant challenges to realizing their rights, including within the formal justice system. Importantly, however, access to justice isn’t a single problem; it is a relationship of challenges faced by many Americans with different educational, psychological, and socio-economic realities. Therefore, solving the problem will require a relationship of solutions, involving multiple public and private efforts, transcending both left and right politics.
The American Bar Association stresses the importance of pro-bono services, specifically arguing that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the demand. However, CEO of LeanLaw, Gary Allen, argues that pro-bono work “does not even come close to filling the gap for people who can’t afford lawyers” because many lawyers can’t afford to provide free services. He reasons that the legal market is “one of the last parts of the economy to modernize,” because for many lawyers, a majority of revenue is used to cover overhead costs. He urges lawyers to modernize their operational practices by creating workflows that could facilitation the extension of more affordable services to a much greater number of people. But even if law firms were to streamline processes, would they really be able to lower prices of services so significantly to solve access to justice? Is this realistic?
Bill Henderson — author and lecturer on the legal market — instead proposes that access to justice can be substantially solved by designing a more human-centered justice platform. He suggests that online dispute resolution (“ODR”) systems, like the one implemented by Canada’s Civil Resolutions Tribunal (“CRT”), could make legal solutions more accessible here in the United States for civil disputes that require relatively predictable procedures. The CRT’s Solution Explorer “uses a simple (6th grade reading level) question and answer format to guide users to tailored, plain language legal information, as well as free self-help tools to resolve their dispute” including templates for letters addressing insurance companies or other parties. The system is designed specifically to accommodate individuals with language barriers, mental health challenges, and educational limitations, and as a result, the program is easy to use, efficient, and has received notably high user satisfaction ratings. The makers of the ODR system claim that the key to the system’s success is the design of the user experience. By collecting user data to determine which aspects of the program are “working” and which aspects are causing users to “fall through the cracks,” designers constantly reconfigure forms and rephrase language to optimize user success.
The American justice system could benefit from an online dispute resolution program because it would provide an alternative to costly legal services for those who need it most. And while the ODR system implemented in Vancouver provides remedies for only four categories of small civil claims and does not offer services for individuals who require more complex legal needs, American businesses have already begun to embrace technology to connect clients with competitively priced legal solutions. For example, Amazon, known for shattering and remodeling industry business models “from the consumer’s perspective,” has recently entered the legal market with its IP Accelerator — a curated network of intellectual property law firms that provide trademark registration services at pre-negotiated rates so that businesses can more efficiently obtain intellectual property rights and brand protection on Amazon’s stores. The initiative targets small and mid-sized businesses which are currently underserved.
Nevertheless, no matter how innovative the American legal market becomes, there will likely always be a need for pro-bono services for those who simply cannot afford to pay for legal services at all. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a private company like Amazon, or a government agency like Vancouver’s CRT, to create a more comprehensive bro-bono initiative on a virtual platform. Individuals could enter the portal and answer simply worded questionnaires to determine which legal service would benefit their needs in the first place. Those who qualify for pro-bono services through a vetting system would have their intake information anonymously listed on a pro-bono listing portal. The database would become available for law firms to browse and adopt pro-bono requests that matched their expertise.
Just as monetary donations to charities are tax deductible and encourage generous contributions, perhaps allowing lawyers to deduct for pro-bono services would more significantly motivate law firms to serve marginalized and threatened communities — the more clients a lawyer services, the more billable hours they may “write off.” After completing services for the pro-bono client, the lawyer may mark the claim as “completed” on the portal, upload a report describing their services, and receive a receipt to present for tax deductions.
The key to any digital platform’s success will be, as Bill Henderson contends and Jeff Bezos embraces, a human-centered design that will require data driven changes to optimize user success. This, coupled with incentivized pro-bono advocates, could perhaps open the door to greater access to justice.