And the #1 Reason People Don’t Have a Lawyer When They Need One Is€¦

With children and young people everywhere getting ready to head back to school, I thought I’d start today’s post with a short pop quiz:

Name the #1 reason why people don’t use lawyers when they encounter a legal issue:

A.     Believe it wouldn’t make any difference

B.     Too expensive/can’t afford it

C.     Don’t recognize a need for legal advice

D.    Don’t know how or where to find one

E.     Determined to handle it on their own

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People Have the Power

Monday was the CBA and CBF’s 18th Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon, where about 700 attendees helped us honor seven unsung heroes of our profession who make us all proud to be part of Chicago’s legal community. This was the third year that we started the Luncheon with a song to help set a theme for the day, and this year’s song was Patti Smith’s classic, People Have the Power. The song is a particularly fitting tribute to the exemplary pro bono and public service work we celebrate at the Luncheon and highlights two important themes in the ongoing quest to ensure the justice system is truly fair and accessible for everyone.

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Which Way Is the Camera on Our Phone Facing?

A picture can paint a thousand words. And sometimes a good metaphor or analogy can have an even greater impact. I witnessed a great example of that a few weeks ago when Lisa Foster, the Director of the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, took out her smart phone and used it as a metaphor for the justice system as the frame for some really thought-provoking remarks.

Ms. Foster demonstrated how she could use the camera on her phone to point it one way and take a selfie, or turn it the other direction and take a picture of the people in front of her. In the justice system, she keenly noted, we take selfies. That is, we look at the system from the perspective of the lawyers, judges and court personnel who are inside of it, not from the perspective of the people who rely on the system for access to justice.

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25 Years a Lawyer

A few weeks ago the congratulations emails started to arrive in my inbox because this month marks my 25th anniversary as a lawyer. The emails weren’t coming from anyone I know, but from people trying to sell me mementos of the occasion.

While I have been very fortunate in my legal career and remain proud to be a lawyer today, I won’t be buying any of that stuff. As anniversaries often are though, it was a time to take stock of what has happened over the time since I took the plunge, and it specifically got me thinking about the trajectory of access to justice since those heady days when I got sworn in. So I thought I’d take a brief break from pontificating about the future of our cause to look back at where we’ve been and what we can learn from that going forward.

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The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working Anymore

This title phrase in some form or another has been used in a variety of contexts over the years as a call to action when longstanding business models fail to keep pace with changing times. I don’t know whether anyone has specifically called out our legal profession using that phrase, but it is only a matter of time. The fact is that a majority of people who need legal help believe that our services as lawyers are unaffordable and aren’t even coming to us when they encounter legal problems, and those are growing trends.

While there are a variety of causes for these unfortunate trends, three fundamental problems are our profession’s overall failure to recognize and leverage advances in technology, fully utilize new practice models, and improve our business processes. I say overall failure because there are some notable exceptions on all three of these fronts of lawyers who are showing the rest of us that it not only can be done, it can be done very successfully. Unfortunately, they remain the exceptions, and as a result increasing numbers of people are turning to others outside of our profession to solve their legal problems.

We can do something about this, and it starts with being open to doing things differently. In my last post, I talked about the importance of rethinking our pricing in the consumer and small business markets as a necessary first step towards delivering our services as efficiently and affordably as possible.

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The Billable Hour: Putting it Out to Pasture to Improve Access to Justice

While it’s been years in the making, with some notable exceptions our profession has managed over time to price the proverbial regular guy out of the market for legal services. It has reached the point that many lawyers will tell you only half-jokingly that even they could not afford their own services if they were to encounter a serious legal problem.

In part, this sad state of affairs is a reflection that in too many cases, our services as lawyers really have become too expensive for low and moderate income people who need them. It also is a reflection though that the market for legal services is largely opaque when it comes to pricing: people who might be able to afford the legal help they need often don’t even try to get a lawyer because they have no idea what it might cost.

These are problems largely of our own making, and the billable hour is a common denominator.

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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: 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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