Last Friday afternoon, a panel discussion was held with John Mayer (CALI), Margaret Hagan (Stanford), Mark Britton (Avvo), and a surprise guest, Ramon Abadin (President of the Florida Bar), titled Atticus Finch, and Access: Bringing Quality and Affordable Legal Services to the Masses and moderated by Dan Lear (Avvo). Now, you might be asking yourself, why is there a panel on A2J at a law technology conference? That’s a good question, and before I entered the room, I had no idea. But now I think I know.
If you weren’t aware of it by now, we have an access to justice problem in both the criminal and civil courts. In a nutshell (and it’s a big nutshell) A2J is about finding ways to provide people of low or modest income with access to the justice system or to provide them with meaningful resolutions. In Texas (and undoubtedly in other states), it’s particularly problematic in the areas of housing (e.g., foreclosures), consumer disputes, family law, and of course criminal law. [An excellent analysis of Texas’ pro se litigation crisis (and its impact on courts) was written and complied by the Institute for Court Management in 2012. Much of the research applies to the other States and is worth a read if you are interested in this topic.]
So, with that as a backdrop, and knowing who was on the panel, I was expecting something of a discussion on how technology was going to improve A2J issues, but was still confused about why Avvo was represented. And by the end of it, I learned why.
Like most, I’ve been conceptualizing A2J as simply a low income problem, and technology is a smart choice here. Mayer’s efforts with A2J Author are simply exceptional, and the number of legal aid organizations that have implemented it to the benefit of their clients is staggering, and I can only imagine that number to increasing annually. Guided interviews that result in proper filings are simply the best way to reduce both legal aid representation and court stress. This is why state-approved court forms are so vitally important. And Hagan’s efforts in designing applications that guide pro se litigants through the court system are, well, beautiful. [I have a picture of a slide, but it’s blurry because I’m bad at pictures.]
BUT (and this is where Abadin comes in) we have to think of the constituents! (He was very balanced, and I get where he’s coming from because I’ve confronted them in my own state.) They don’t want all this A2J bullshit because THOSE ARE POTENTIAL CLIENTS, DON’T YOU SEE! In the pro se analysis I mentioned above, there is a letter from the Texas Family Law Foundation expressing their grave concern that the Access to Justice Committee has exceeded their mandate (and now we are seeing it with probate lawyers as our Legislature mandated the creation of some simple wills) in developing a plan for creating self-help forms, etc.
So me, I’m approaching this problem from the perspective that WAKE UP, THESE PEOPLE WILL NEVER BE YOUR CLIENTS ANYWAY. And that’s when Hagan and Britton drop a bombshell. They say something to the effect of “well our research shows that 70 to 80% of people who have a matter want to connect with a lawyer, but there are barriers, like they think they are too expensive.” WUT?
It is then, that I realize that A2J is a two-sided coin. On one side, it’s individuals who are too poor to afford an attorney or (like the report states) they think they are capable of handling their own problem and, on the other side, it’s individuals who have an issue but won’t reach out because they think it’s too costly. And guess what, technology assists both demographics.
By the end of the discussion, the question for me ended up being what side of the coin do you want to work on? Personally, I already know that answer, but I applaud the ABA Techshow committee for putting on the panel. And honestly, I think the audience was rewarded by having Abadin show up, because bar politics is hard.