Access to Justice and the Critical Diagnostic Role of Lawyers

Some Good Food for Thought from Other Disciplines

Having shared some thoughts on the future of our profession and what we might learn from other disciplines in part one of this post, today I turn to the billion-dollar question of what it all means for access to justice.

Looking at this question through the lens of the client as we always should and recognizing all of the advances in access that technology and improvements in court processes are making possible, when does someone really need the advice or assistance of a lawyer to justly resolve their legal issue? When is it okay for people to use increasingly robust self-help legal resources to address their issue rather than get assistance from a good lawyer, especially knowing there is not nearly enough free and affordable legal help to go around today? And finally, what should we as a legal community be doing to shape the future so that all people have access to the level of legal help they need to achieve justice regardless of their income or circumstances?

All big questions for sure, and I think the answers we collectively write in the next few years will be critical to whether the future turns out to be a boon for both our profession and access to justice, or the end of our profession and justice system as we know them. While that may sound overly dramatic, I am not sure we can overstate the magnitude of change that is both necessary and already afoot, or the need for the legal community to get out in front of these changes to lead the way towards a better future.

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Access to Justice and the Future of the Legal Profession

Some Good Food for Thought from Other Disciplines

What do a high-end hotel chain, the medical profession, or behavioral economics have to do with the future of our legal profession? And when it comes to access to justice, what difference does it make?

Being the know-it-alls we tend to be as lawyers and working in a legal system fundamentally framed by precedents and a this is how it’s been done in the past mentality, adapting to change and finding wisdom from outside of the law do not come easy for us. Yet it’s no secret that big changes already are afoot in our profession and are about to accelerate rapidly in the next few years. There’s a lot we can learn from other disciplines that also are confronting a changing world where technology plays an increasingly integral role. While I wasn’t consciously thinking about it in these terms, three seemingly unrelated things I read over the holiday break got me thinking more clearly about the way forward for law and justice.

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Justice as a Discretionary Expense Where Did We Lose Our Way and How Can We Find Our Way Back?

Somewhere along the way from the time of our nation’s founding to today, the principle of justice for all went from being fundamental to who we are as Americans to something that is largely treated as a discretionary budget item at all levels of government. As a result, our nation’s promise of justice for all increasingly looks like an empty one to most Americans–and we all are losing something vital to our national identity in the process.

How did we lose our way on something so integral to who we are as Americans? And more importantly, how do we get ourselves back on track? While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do know this: it won’t just happen by itself. All of us in the legal community, both individually and collectively, need to use our influence by taking the lead in making this case to our elected officials and to the public.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Bar Associations, Foundations, Access to Justice Commissions, and Other Systemic Players

Part 6 of a 7-part series

As we reach the end of this year’s Pro Bono Week, it is time to look in the mirror at ourselves and our colleagues in the bar/funder/access to justice commission world as the last key pro bono stakeholder to discuss this week. While each of the other key players discussed earlier in this week’s series lawyers, firms and law departments; legal aid organizations; government; and the courts have distinct roles to play in the pro bono landscape, none of them operate in a vacuum. Bar associations, funders, commissions and other systemic players are well-positioned make all of the other key stakeholders more efficient and effective when we do our jobs well.

In carrying out our systemic responsibilities, there are several key things those of us with this vantage point can do to make pro bono the best it can be.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Final Thoughts

Part 7 of a 7-part series

Congratulations! We have reached the end of this weeklong Myths and Realities series on pro bono, and you deserve a gold star for hanging in for the whole series.

Over the course of Pro Bono Week, I’ve discussed pro bono from the vantage point of five key pro bono stakeholder groups: lawyers, firms and law departments; legal aid organizations; government; the courts; and bar associations, foundations, access to justice commissions and other systemic players. To protect the guilty, I have not always called out the myths surrounding each stakeholder, focusing instead on the realities and positive steps that each group can and should take to advance this cause. With a little imagination though, you probably can see where I believe the myths are in there by looking at the opposite of what I had to say, and what did not make my list at all.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: The Role of the Courts

Part 5 of a 7-part series

Court-based pro bono programs that address the needs of unpresented litigants can be an effective part of the larger strategy to ensure that the justice system is fair, accessible and efficient for all. There are a variety of successful court-based program models, including help desks that provide brief advice and services; lawyer for the day or other limited service appointments such as representation in mediation or settlement hearings; and panels of lawyers who provide extended representation to litigants in particular types of civil and criminal cases.

While pro bono volunteers can and do provide important assistance in ensuring access to the courts, they are not a substitute for robust and properly funded legal aid and public service entities or for a user-friendly and accessible court system. When designed and implemented well, however, these programs can provide an important supplement to these efforts in a way that is a win-win for all stakeholders.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: The Role of Government

Part 4 of a 7-part series

As important as pro bono is to the larger efforts to ensure equal access to justice, the idea that it somehow could be a replacement for adequate funding for legal aid and other critical public service legal functions is terribly misguided. While pro bono indeed does play an integral role in the larger access to justice landscape, it is just one part of the larger solution.

Equal access to justice is one of our foremost principles as a nation, reflected in the fact that our founding fathers chose to establish justice at the start of the Constitution, and in the Pledge of Allegiance’s familiar refrain of liberty and justice for all. The promise of justice for all is an empty one without access to necessary legal assistance, and the laws our governments pass are meaningless if they are not applied equally. Access to quality legal assistance is absolutely essential to ensure that everyone receives the equal protections of our nation’s laws.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Legal Aid Organizations

Part 3 of a 7-part series

As noted in my prior post in this week’s special Pro Bono Week series, legal aid organizations play a critical partnership role in pro bono by providing the necessary infrastructure to support pro bono work for lawyers, firms and companies. There are a multitude of benefits for the legal aid organization and its clients when the organization has a top down commitment to pro bono and makes the proper investments in pro bono.

When a legal aid organization runs a good pro bono program, the direct services that volunteers provide are just one part of the benefit. That impact can multiply in many other ways and the potential benefits are almost limitless. But when a pro bono program is mediocre or worse, the opposite can occur. It not only might sour the attorneys and their firms on the organization, it could dampen their view of pro bono and legal aid in general.

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Pro Bono Myths and Realities: Lawyers, Law Firms and Corporate Legal Departments

Part 2 of a 7-part series

Any discussion about pro bono should start with lawyers, law firms and corporate legal departments because of the special responsibility our profession holds towards this cause as trustees of the justice system. Fulfilling our special responsibility requires contributions of time and money as well as a strategic use of the influence lawyers, firms and companies have in our community. Pro bono clearly is an integral part of that no matter how much we may be doing on other charitable and community service fronts. It also is just one part of a larger, integrated solution to ensuring equal access to justice.

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Pro Bono: Myths, Realities, and Its Proper Role in Access to Justice

Part 1 of a 7-part series

If you talk to enough people about pro bono, it won’t take long before you will hear nonsense like pro bono is the solution to chronic underfunding of legal aid, or equally silly statements like pro bono is nothing more than an overhyped waste of time and energy. And a whole lot of other untruths in between those two extremes.

The truth is pro bono indeed does play an integral role in the larger access to justice landscape, not to mention in our legal profession and in the justice system. But that role too often is overstated, understated or simply misstated and misunderstood, to the detriment of all of us who care about pro bono and equal access to justice.

As we kick off this year’s Pro Bono Week, over the next few days I will be blogging about pro bono as it relates to the key stakeholders in the access to justice cause, closing the loop at the end with some suggestions for all of these stakeholders going forward.

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