To survive and thrive in the 21st century, and to continue serving the public adequately, attorneys can no longer muddle through with business as usual.
Wide swaths of the public are unable to get their legal needs met. Innovations in technology and other changes in society continue to shift how legal services can be accessed and delivered. Bias, complexity, discrimination and lack of resources undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the justice system.
These were the top concerns raised a couple years ago by the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which also made several recommendations on solving these conundrums that seem well worth considering. Doing so, the commission wrote, would bring about the “significant change … needed to serve the public’s legal needs in the 21st century.”
Although there have been sustained efforts to expand access, most of those in poverty and the majority of moderate-income people cannot afford representation, the commission found. This means the public fails to obtain effective assistance and litigants come to court unrepresented, which adversely impacts all parties involved. At the same time, many lawyers, especially younger ones, are unemployed or underemployed, hemmed in by the traditional practice business model and the profession’s resistance to change, the ABA noted.
Technological and other innovations to assist the public in meeting their legal needs include experimental projects on the part of courts, bar associations, law schools and some lawyers, in areas like artificial intelligence, alternative billing and unbundled legal services. Against this backdrop, new providers of legal services continue to proliferate and create different choices for consumers and lawyers, the commission pointed out.
Public trust and confidence is undermined by the facts that the profession fails to reflect the diversity of the public, conscious and unconscious bias stands in the way of fairness and justice, the system’s functioning remains opaque to the average person, the criminal justice system is overburdened by mass incarceration and inadequate resources, and inadequate funding of courts on behalf of federal and state governments, the commission wrote.
The ABA Commission put forth a series of a dozen recommendations to help solve these stubborn challenges. For lawyers and law firms, these include supporting the goal of providing some type of effective assistance for all “essential civil legal needs” regardless of a person’s ability to pay, keeping abreast of relevant technologies, partnering with those in other disciplines and the public to gain insights about innovations in service delivery, and working to advance diversity and inclusion through updated policies, standards and practices.
To reform the court system, the commission recommended considering regulatory innovations such as exploring how legal services are delivered by Internet-based platforms and through alternative business structures. Courts also should become more accessible physically and virtually, through streamlined processes, multilingual materials and alternative dispute resolution systems, the ABA recommended.
Elsewhere in the public sphere, the commission recommended reforming the criminal justice system by decriminalizing minor offenses and adequately funding public defender offices, among other changes; vastly expanding resources to support longstanding efforts to successfully address the public’s unmet needs through legal aid and pro bono efforts; and measuring the outcomes of any established or new models “to evaluate effectiveness in fulfilling regulatory objectives.”
As for the ABA itself, the commission recommended that it establish a Center for Innovation, create guidelines for state bar associations and others to develop and administer “legal checkups” for attorneys and law firms, and, along with other bar associations, to “make the examination of the future of legal services part of their ongoing strategic long-range planning.”
Which seems wise, because however thoughtful and well considered, one bar association report is not going to singlehandedly change legal services delivery in a way that solves the access and trust problem while assisting unemployed and underemployed attorneys. But a persistent, strategic effort just might stand a chance.