Roughly two-thirds of those eligible for legal aid in Massachusetts (read: people in extreme poverty) are turned away because there aren’t enough legal aid attorneys. Approximately 80 percent of all individuals in civil court represent themselves—in matters that will change their lives in drastic ways.
Whether our law schools have an ethical obligation to address the justice gap may strike some as a question far down in the pecking order of legal education. “Keep it real,” would go the argument.
“At a time when students face massive debt, law schools need to worry about jobs for their graduates—not the justice gap!”
But a focus on jobs and addressing the justice gap are not mutually exclusive.
It doesn’t make sense to me that a massive population of individuals who desperately need legal assistance and a large number of law school graduates who need legal jobs can’t work together as attorney and client without the law grad also working nights as a barista.
Which brings me to two questions that I and others on our team at Suffolk Law started asking a few years ago of legal futurists and practicing attorneys of every stripe: “What innovative approach might allow young attorneys to start their own firms or join small firms serving average-income people? And how could it be sustainable?”
Part of the puzzle would be teaching students to choose and then handle fee-shifting cases where the winning side gets attorney fees from the losing side. Another part would be learning to handle cases efficiently, using cutting-edge technology, so that for both fee shifting and fee-for-service cases, the student would be able to handle intake, billing, contracts and other processes quickly, and thus reduce costs per client. Finally, the student would need to learn the most effective marketing skills to help bring the right kinds of clients through the door—in sufficient numbers to keep the ball rolling.
“So how might that happen?” was the next obvious question, given that many new lawyers have limited experience choosing cases and are inefficient because of their inexperience in the trenches.
In short, students would need to be cross-trained in traditional law courses, legal technology, process management, and business. In 2014, Suffolk started a program to put these principles in place.
It may sound faddish to spout the names of legal process technologies (e-discovery, automated documents, decision trees, for example), but the fact is that technological efficiencies are continuing to shake the legal marketplace. It makes sense for law schools to train students to be the drivers of change rather than passive recipients.
Students in the Accelerator to Practice program are cross-training in the areas described above, followed by a yearlong stint in an Accelerator law firm that serves clients under the supervision of clinical faculty and legal technology experts.
So far, the results are encouraging. Students with legal process management skills and knowledge of automation tell me that those skills have been a huge help in the job market and that they are using their newfound tech-savvy regularly at work. Some are working in small firms, while others are working in the legal technology industry.
Change takes time. Law school graduates will need cross-training in technology, efficiency and business skills to create an alternative business model, with fee-shifting as one part of the mix, to serve the vast untapped market of low- and moderate-income clients. They’ll need a set of skills most of their employers lack. And that’s highly valued in the job market.
Ilene Seidman is associate dean for academic affairs at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. She is one of the leaders of the school’s Accelerator to Practice cross-training program. The program was honored by the ABA in January for innovations in the provision of legal services to average-income Americans.
Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.