Posted Nov 10, 2011 2:35 PM CST
By Scott Bratsman
Editor’s Note: We asked readers to write an essay or record a video telling us how large firms can innovate. This was the actual question: “How can large firms change the way in which law is practiced over the next five years, in a way that no other group can?” Below is the winning entry. The author will receive a check for $5,000. The prize money comes from a trust established in the 1930s by Judge Erskine Ross of Los Angeles.
Many Legal Rebels have changed, are changing and will yet change the practice of law, and large firms are in a unique position to do so—in a big way.
Some may disparage BigLaw for addressing the legal needs of only the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals. But rather than tear down BigLaw for what it does well, we should look for ways to extend its unique abilities and scale to the underprivileged and the middle class. In this sense, perhaps even the most self-aggrandizing firms simply aren’t thinking grandly enough. In business, for example, the biggest companies serve everyday citizens—after all, real profit doesn’t come from the wealthy alone. If it did, Exxon, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Disney wouldn’t be household names throughout America and, indeed, the world. If our largest and most profitable companies don’t merely serve the needs of the well-funded, why should BigLaw so limit itself?
As is clear from the nascent Occupy movement, which is spreading like wildfire across America, regular citizens are fed up with the extant economic imbalance in our democratic society. According to the CIA, the U.S. is more unequal than Egypt, China, Russia and Iran. Yet despite decades of valiant access-to-justice efforts and eloquent renditions otherwise, the justice imbalance in the U.S. is equally pathetic. Years ago, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. declared: “Equal justice under law is not just a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. … It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.” Nonetheless, our current reality remains in stark contrast to these noble words, and those of millions of schoolchildren daily proclaiming “justice for all.”
According to the New York Times, four out of five low-income people have no access to a lawyer when they need one, and the ABA asserts that “the middle 70 percent of our population is not being reached or served adequately by the legal profession.” All this despite the lowest-ever percentage of law school graduates obtaining jobs requiring a legal degree last year—only two out of three, leaving 15,000 whose potential legal service to society is under-tapped or untapped. Even health care isn’t this broken!
This disconnect will be addressed, preferably through innovation and by those in the best position to correct it. Numerous lawyers—and many others outside the legal field—are passionate about this problem and are dedicated to solving it. BigLaw must step up as a big part of the solution or risk falling prey to its own traditions and being passed by. But how?
Over the next five years, BigLaw can unilaterally make justice vastly more accessible by hiring additional attorneys at lower rates to provide affordable legal services to the middle class. It can, following the health care model, provide flat-rate clinics for common vanilla legal services. It can vastly expand free legal services to the underprivileged by implementing more robust pro bono programs (currently only one in four attorneys meets the ABA goal of 50 hours per year). It can capitalize on its vast internal legal knowledge and technology platforms to educate the public and provide legal forms and unbundled services from a trusted source. And perhaps most significant, it can think much differently about its role in effectively representing all members of a society in which equal access to justice is “fundamental.”
In the end, the right solution may not be to cut BigLaw up into tiny pieces. Instead, it may be to grow it to 10 times its current size—by serving the common people.
Scott Bratsman is a 2L in the JD/MA in East Asian Studies program at Duke University School of Law. He previously worked at Disney, Holland & Knight and Microsoft, and is preparing to launch a startup, WorldSquare, to apply disruptive innovation to socioeconomic challenges, including the justice gap. He resides in Durham, N.C., with his wife and four children, and can be reached at