Access to justice can be achieved, says 'Law Democratized' author—but not without change
In 2013, the ABA Journal named Renee Knake Jefferson a Legal Rebel for her work co-founding the Michigan State University's ReInvent Law Laboratory and rethinking how legal services could be delivered to consumers. In 2024, she's looking back at more than a decade of research and experimental programs aimed at improving access to justice—the successes and the failures.
In this episode of The Modern Law Library podcast, Jefferson and the ABA Journal’s Lee Rawles discuss her new book, Law Democratized: A Blueprint for Solving the Justice Crisis. The scale of the issue is daunting: Jefferson cites a study finding that 87% of American households facing legal issues don’t even attempt to seek legal assistance.
“Civil legal disputes—think child support, citizenship, consumer complaints, custody, divorce, employment, guardianship, housing, medical needs—make their way to more than 15,000 courts throughout the United States each year,” Jefferson writes. “Whatever the root cause, a massive delivery problem clearly exists for personal legal services.”
Jefferson shares examples of alternative business structures and access-to-justice projects from around the world that challenged old client models. Some—like offering legal services inside British grocery stores—were not successes.
“In theory, consumers could pick up a will with a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, allowing them to resolve legal problems in a place they already regularly transact,” Jefferson writes. “But grocery store law never flourished.”
Other ventures fared better, and Law Democratized compiles a number of suggestions based on research findings and real-world experiences. Jefferson says she intends the book to not only be a record of what’s been tried but to also function as a user-friendly way for the public to learn about changes that they could be advocating for at local, state and national levels.
Much of the discussion around improving access to justice involves regulatory reform, and Jefferson shares what has been discovered in states like Utah and Texas through the establishment of regulatory sandboxes. Jefferson also shares ideas about how law schools can be serving their communities, as well as their students. Law Democratized suggests ways that antitrust law and the First Amendment could be used to expand the public’s access to civil legal services without the direct use of lawyers.
Jefferson and Rawles also discuss her expertise in legal ethics and what she thinks about the use of artificial intelligence by legal professionals. Jefferson, who writes the Legal Ethics Roundup newsletter on Substack, explains why she doesn’t see the need for an immediate rewriting of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct to address the new technology.
In This Podcast:
Renee Knake Jefferson
Renee Knake Jefferson is the Joanne and Larry Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics and is a professor at the University of Houston Law Center in Texas. An elected member of the American Law Institute, she frequently consults and testifies as an expert on lawyer and judicial ethics matters. Prior to joining the University of Houston faculty in 2016, she was the Foster Swift Professor of Legal Ethics and co-director of the Frank J. Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Michigan State University College of Law, where she taught for a decade. In 2015, Jefferson was a scholar-in-residence at Stanford Law School’s Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession and a visiting scholar at the American Bar Foundation. She was a co-reporter for the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services from 2014 to 2016. She was named a 2013 ABA Journal Legal Rebel. Before her academic career, Jefferson practiced law at Mayer Brown in Chicago and at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia, where she specialized in commercial litigation, telecommunications and labor and employment law. She also worked as an assistant city attorney for Charlottesville, Virginia. She earned her JD from the University of Chicago Law School.