About the Legal Services Gap

August 26, 2016 - Dan Rubins

One of the biggest problems in the American justice system today is the gap in access to legal services. And while this seems like it should be an easy problem to solve – given principles of equal rights under the law – the reality is, there are many people who remain at a great disadvantage, as we discussed earlier.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for socioeconomic status to seriously impact judicial outcomes. While it can be difficult to quantify on an individual case, in aggregate, study after study demonstrates significant disparities in outcomes across criminal and civil cases from socioeconomic status. Even people who are appointed counsel in criminal matters likely will not receive the legal assistance they deserve in civil matters. According to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, it’s estimated that approximately 80% of people who qualify as “low income” are not receiving access to legal services they need.

While many people vaguely remember something from high school about not being deprived of deprived of life, liberty, or property unfairly, it is a common misconception that a lawyer will be there to assist. There is no right to counsel for civil matters as serious as domestic violence, foreclosure, eviction proceedings, and even immigration hearings.

Indeed, the Brennan Center for Justice has recently teamed up with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the American Civil Liberties Union to file an amicus brief on behalf of economically disadvantaged people who wish to receive fair and equitable loan modification terms, if they’re facing foreclosure. Needless to say, this brief is being challenged by some banks.

How much Justice can you afford?

There is an old lawyer cartoon with the caption “You have a pretty good case, Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” With top tier bill rates recently crossing $1,500 per hour (or even as high as $2,000 per hour, by one report just last week), paired with only 57% of young lawyers actually using their law degree, there is clearly a disconnect in the legal services market to the point where traditional economics (almost) does not apply. Bill rates on the extremely high-end of legal services do not trickle down to young lawyers (if they can even find a job), which adds to the long term labor supply problem. To make it worse, some law schools are even cutting admissions due to years of slacking interest in the legal profession.

What can be done to close the access gap?

There are a few different legal scholars who have ideas on how to close the access gap, because they too are concerned with the lack of access to legal services in America today. One of the most vocal proponents of closing the access gap is Dan Lear, who works as the director for industry relations at industry giant Avvo. Lear is quick to distinguish, however, between the truly economically disadvantaged, and those who are of modest means who can’t afford high-end legal services.

Lear also says that while lawyers are certainly trying their best (and, in fact, they are required to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono services each year under the American Bar Association rules), there’s simply not enough lawyers to accommodate the growing poor. Moreover, Lear says, we need to distinguish between those who truly need justice (such as those facing criminal charges, but who don’t have access to a good lawyer) and those who need simple legal services (such as those who simply need a will drawn up).

Finally, the Legal Services Corporation offers the following suggestion: increase the Federal funding to organizations such as theirs, rather than decrease the funding. It is estimated, according to their recent research, that almost a million economically disadvantaged people will be granted little to no access to the legal services that they need. And because there’s an increasing gap in the number of lawyers available to provide services and the number of economically disadvantaged people who need services, increasing the funding to organizations who consistently work with the economically disadvantaged can only improve the access to justice & legal services gap that currently plagues the economically disadvantaged in America.

Why do we care?

Obviously, we’re nowhere near the level of sophistication with AI that would allow a robot to represent someone in court. However, we at Legal Robot believe that by reducing friction in the legal system, lawyers will be free to work on more meaningful tasks like addressing the legal services gap.