More on Law Schools and Access to Justice

Earlier in the week, Professor Margaret Moore Jackson had this post about law schools and access to justice.  This follow up post highlights some recent developments in this area and explains some of the ways in which law schools might approach embracing an access-to-justice mission.

A recently released report from the U.S. Legal Services Corporation (LSC) provides damning information on the state of the justice gap, which it appropriately calls the justice “gulf”.  The LSC’s main findings include the following:

  • 70% of low-income households have experienced at least one civil legal problem in the last year;
  • 70% of low-income Americans with civil legal problems reported that at least one of their problems affected them very much or severely;
  • Low-income Americans with legal problems seek assistance only 20% of the time, driven by the cost of services, not knowing that their problem is of a legal nature, or not knowing where to turn for help;
  • An estimated 1.7 million low-income Americans will turn to LSC-funded programs for legal help and yet more than half of these will receive only limited help or no help at all.

These figures should give the entire legal profession in general, and law schools in particular, great pause.  The access-to-justice crisis in the United States threatens to undermine our system of justice, as an adversarial system where, more and more, one side does not have representation, is not a system of justice at all.  Just as members of the legal profession have an ethical duty to ensure access to justice, so, too, do law schools have a responsibility to prepare their students to enter the profession with the mindset that we must close this justice gulf.

To these ends, on May 18, 2017, New York State’s Permanent Commission on Access to Justice held its sixth annual “Law School Access to Justice Conference” at St. John’s School of Law.  This robust conference manifests the Permanent Commission’s view that law schools have a critical role to play in closing the justice gap.  Court officials, law school faculty and administrators, and a large number of practitioners all gathered for this one-day conference to explore ways to work more closely together to help address the access-to-justice crisis plaguing the United States.  Such a conference is timely and worthwhile because law schools are in a terrific position to help close the justice gap as they educate their students to enter the profession, hopefully with an appreciation for the legal needs of all Americans and a sense that helping to close this justice gulf is the responsibility of all lawyers.

The legal profession, law schools that produce the lawyers who will join the profession, and individuals and families who would like the assistance of a lawyer all have shared interests: a desire to increase access to justice. Through this convergence of interests, these critical stakeholders can come together to advance meaningful social change that improves such access, strengthens civic engagement, and supports the rule of law. The focus of such efforts would be to develop a stronger appreciation for the role lawyers can play in society and the difference lawyers can make in furthering civic virtues.  Law schools can thus embrace an access-to-justice mission as a way of advancing not just their own interests, but those of the profession and society as a whole.

What would embracing an access-to-justice mission mean for law schools?  The cornerstones of law schools are the teaching, scholarship, and service that the faculty and staff at such institution undertake.  Should law schools embrace an access-to-justice mission, doing so would impact these three areas.  While an access-to-justice mission often permeates different divisions within a law school—like its clinical or pro bono programs—embracing an access-to-justice mission would mean working across the institution to close the justice gap, in the school’s teaching, scholarship, and service.

First, with scholarship, there is a growing body of research on the difference lawyers make in the lives of their clients.  A wonderful meta-study of recent research can be found here.  While not all of this research finds universal benefits from all legal representation, more such research, which tends to be interdisciplinary, is needed, and law school faculties should explore opportunities to work with scholars from other disciplines to assess the differences lawyers can make in the lives of their clients to help make the case for broader access to justice.  Similarly, scholars can build on such work to do cost-benefit analyses of providing government funding for free legal representation in different contexts.  Research consistently shows that providing funding to offer free lawyers to low-income clients saves local and state government millions of dollars (see example here).  Legal services lawyers help prevent eviction and homelessness, help individuals obtain stolen wages (which then make their way into local economies), and gain access to federal benefits.  By developing this research more, local and state governments can see the financial value of investing in free legal services, and legal scholars, teaming up, again, with other disciplines, can help make the case for expanding access to justice.

We can also incorporate access-to-justice issues in teaching and service as well.  While one might deal with access-to-justice questions in a class on legal ethics, the consequences of the justice gap for legal doctrine is profound in many areas of law, from constitutional law to consumer and criminal law.  We can incorporate access-to-justice questions across the curriculum quite easily, exploring, in a trans-substantive way, the extent to which the justice gap affects doctrine and practice in all areas of the law.

Similarly, service is another core component of law schools and all faculty and staff can be engaged in efforts to improve access to justice and raise the profile of access-to-justice questions by participating in pro bono efforts, talking about how students can engage in such efforts, and stressing the importance of incorporating public service into all of our students’ careers, regardless of whether they engage in public interest law per se or work in other sectors.  Since all lawyers have an ethical obligation to improve access to justice, students should learn, early on, the ways that access to justice can and should permeate everything lawyers do throughout their careers.

Law schools presently face considerable challenges, not the least of which is ensuring that their students have viable and rewarding careers once they leave the law school and embark on their professional lives.  By embracing an access-to-justice mission, law schools can possibly help make the case for expansion of funding for free legal services but also ensure that their graduates are committed to access-to-justice principles throughout their careers.   Doing so will not just help reduce the justice gap and law graduates’ career options and opportunities, it will help strengthen the role the profession and law schools play in ensuring our justice system works for everyone.

For a deeper exploration of many of these issues, see here; comments and feedback welcome.


I explore some of these issues in greater depth here; I welcome comments and feedback.

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