Make 2016 the Year We Close the Justice Gap

2 important ways lawyers can help

Allegra Nethery
Dec 9, 2015 · 7 min read
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“You Can Help” (photo credit)

In earlier posts here at Rethink the Practice, we learned about the “value gap” from Seyfarth chair Steve Poor — the gap between the value legal providers believe they are offering and the value clients believe they are receiving — and the “people gap” from Seyfarth’s Diversity Action Team co-chair Laura Maechtlen — the gap between the world’s demographics and the legal world’s demographics.

Today I want to talk about what may be the biggest gap of all — the justice gap. The justice gap is the difference between the number of low-income people in need of civil legal services and the availability of those services for them.

Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to counsel in civil cases such as foreclosure, housing discrimination, evictions, immigration, family law and more. This means that if you need legal assistance for a civil matter, you need to find (and pay for) your own lawyer.

But millions of people who have civil legal needs can’t afford lawyers. Legal aid organizations such as LAF provide free legal services to low-income people, but there aren’t nearly enough legal aid lawyers to serve everyone. In fact, there is only about one legal aid lawyer for every 10,000 people in need, according to the National Center for Access to Justice.

Pro bono efforts by large law firms have become a major supplement to civil legal aid in the United States. In 2014, the AmLaw 200 firms reported doing 4.75 million hours of pro bono. This work is laudable and extremely important to the low-income clients and community organizations that benefitted from it.

In addition to “traditional” pro bono, law firms and their corporate clients can use innovative approaches such as Lean Six Sigma and public support of legal aid funding to help close the justice gap.

How Lean Six Sigma can improve legal aid processes

The New York Times recently ran a special section on philanthropy that included an article about how the trend among charitable foundations is to make so-called “big bets” by allocating huge sums of money to solve major societal issues, such as income inequality. It addresses a gap similar to the justice gap, as seen in this quote by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation: “We’re trying to transform systems and create tipping points, not just make individual grants to individual organizations.”

The legal community needs to adopt this mindset. In addition to contributing pro bono hours, we need to look at the entire legal aid system.

If ever there were a system in need of transformation, it’s civil legal aid. At Seyfarth, we have been looking at — and experimenting with — different ways to help legal aid organizations run more efficiently so that they can deliver improved services to their low-income clients. We’ve taken the SeyfarthLean business process improvement methodology we use with our corporate clients and adapted it for the legal aid context. Using voice of the client interviews, process mapping, lessons-learned analysis and metrics, we have worked with several legal aid organizations to improve their systems. This work has resulted in, for example, a streamlined intake process and case management processes that don’t require the lawyer to reinvent the wheel with each new matter. Ultimately, the goal is to equip the legal aid lawyers to “practice at the top of their licenses” while serving as many clients as possible.

Through work with a number of legal aid organizations, we have seen good results. However, each project can take several months, and we generally only have the resources to focus on one project at a time.

To try to scale up these process improvement efforts, we recently piloted a program in Minnesota in which the state-wide legal aid funder, the Legal Services Advisory Committee (LSAC), convened about 20 legal aid organizations to come to a half-day seminar where our own Lisa Damon taught the participants how to use many Lean Six Sigma tools such as process mapping and root cause analysis.

After the interactive session, we gave the participants summary instructional guides for each of the concepts. The idea was for the participants to take the concepts back to their organizations and use them to improve the way they do business. It is too soon to know the results, but the idea was to create a model that could be scaled for other locations.

An interesting aspect of the Minnesota pilot project was that it was the result of a brainstorming session I had with Chris Wendt, an in-house lawyer with the Mayo Clinic who also chairs the LSAC. Mayo is a Lean Six Sigma-oriented company and Chris wanted to bring those concepts to the legal aid organizations that the LSAC was funding.

These days, many companies operate in a Lean Six Sigma environment, and they expect their legal departments to follow suit. Because of this, in-house counsel may be more familiar with Six Sigma concepts than their law firm counterparts. Thus, in-house counsel too have the potential to use process improvement expertise to help legal aid organizations operate more efficiently. Teaching process improvement to legal aid organizations presents an innovative and interesting way for in-house counsel to do pro bono work and invest in their communities.

How lawyers can use advocacy to close the justice gap

Even if law firms and corporate legal departments engage in these types of innovative initiatives, more must be done to close the justice gap. I say that not to be pessimistic, but rather to underscore the scope of the problem: no amount of pro bono work — no matter how broad or systemic — can take the place of civil legal aid. For that reason, pro bono work cannot and should not be used, as it sometimes is, to justify government cuts to funding for legal aid.

In 2010, the budget for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), established by Congress as the primary federal funder of legal aid, was $420 million. That sounds like a lot, but when you consider that there are more than 63 million people eligible for the services funded by this money, it averages out to a little over $6 per person. The situation has only gotten worse. In 2011, Congress cut the budget to $404 million; in 2012, to $348 million. Since then, Congress has slightly increased the annual budget, but in 2015, it was still only $375 million, nearly 11% lower than 2010. The legal aid organizations funded by the LSC are on the front lines of poverty law, representing low-income individuals in housing, family law and other areas. Many of them operate on a shoestring budget with outdated technology and few resources.

What does this have to do with private lawyers? Well, in addition to engaging in pro bono legal work, we can and should engage in public support of efforts to increase funding for legal aid. Although lack of access to justice affects millions of people, those people tend to be voiceless. We must be their voice.

What color is legal aid?

Unlike with higher-profile disease-related charities or social services organizations, legal aid does not enjoy broad support.

In Chicago, the city skyline turns pink in October (breast cancer awareness month, in case you have been living on Mars), as buildings replace their usual lights with pink ones. Many other causes have achieved similar visibility. But what about legal aid? Bob Glaves, Executive Director of the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) likes to say, “Nobody’s going to light up the Sears Tower for legal aid.” And he’s right!

It is up to us, as members of the legal community, to be the beacon. And we have more influence than we may realize. Studies and articles show that voter turnout is higher among well-educated, higher income individuals. That’s us, folks. Lawmakers will listen when lawyers raise issues, so if more voices join the chorus, there is a better chance of closing this huge gap.

You can raise your voice in two ways:

  1. The American Bar Association annually organizes a lobbying effort known as “ABA Day in Washington” during which state and local bar leaders travel to Capitol Hill and visit with lawmakers to explain the importance of funding for legal aid.
  2. Can’t visit our nation’s capital? The ABA also has created a Grassroots Action Center with Tips on Taking Action to help people get involved. Likewise, the CBF has created the Justice Pledge; you can sign up to receive action alerts that give you step-by-step instructions on how you can get involved in advocacy efforts.

The Justice Pledge asks lawyers to spend the next year committing to use their money, influence, and legal skills in service of closing the justice gap. Well, the New Year is right around the corner. Let’s make it our 2016 resolution to shine our collective and powerful spotlight on this issue.

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