Advancing Justice Through Social Professionalism

by Mina Dixon Davis

Yelp, the cheery one-stop shop for restaurant and other crowd-sourced reviews, was in 2014 the “most popular and trusted website for legal reviews.”[1] But for prospective litigants in the lowest income bracket, affordable representation might as well be off the menu.[2]

Efforts to increase access to justice have been incremental, according to Richard Zorza, Founder and Coordinator Emeritus of the Self Represented Litigation Network.[6] Zorza joined other stakeholders at the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 2016 Symposium: Remaining Ethical Lawyers in a Changing Profession[7] to discuss how trends like online rating tools and commercialization bear on access to justice concerns.

“Our collective lawyer generation must think about how to leverage tools to find members of the public who need legal services,” said Renee Newman Knake, professor of law and the Foster Swift Professor of Legal Ethics at Michigan State University.[8] Knake noted that ratings tools like Yelp, as well as nontraditional legal service providers, could potentially be players in this effort.[9]

But merely getting people who need lawyers representation is only one piece of the puzzle, contends Rebecca Roiphe, who teaches criminal procedure, professional responsibility, ethics and criminal practice, and American legal history at New York Law School. “What we need is for lawyers to act differently. And that’s the harder piece,” she said.[10]

Roiphe observed that “access to justice” was once conceptualized as a movement to bring substantive social change. Today, it’s often used to convey “access to lawyers,” said Roiphe. The key to innovation, then, might just be in recapturing this historical tradition of social professionalism—that is, of thinking of the legal profession as a means to solve greater problems. “Lawyers should be thinking about what justice is,” she said.[11]

There’s evidence that several dedicated professionals are indeed thinking about justice in this problem-solving context. In April 2015, Georgetown University Law Center collaborated with firms Arent Fox LLP and DLA Piper LLP to launch the DC Affordable Law Firm (DCALF),[12] a nonprofit, low bono law firm designed to reach those who make too much to qualify for legal aid, but are still unable to afford legal counsel.

“[DCALF] is set up to serve a population of 100,000 people who are between 200 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level,” said Sheldon Krantz, the executive director of the firm. DCALF draws upon the private bar, the academic community, and legal service providers to tackle the justice gap.[13] “We have people coming in [who are] involved in a custody dispute, desperately trying to keep a child. Or, they’re trying not to be evicted. Their comment is, ‘we want to pay you the $75 an hour, [and] we finally have some place to go,’” Krantz said.[14]

Knake added that two young professionals started a similar practice in Utah. “They hung their own shingle . . . and created a nonprofit. They are grant funded, and they have discovered that there is a large segment of the public interested in paying a reasonable hourly rate,” she said.[15]

Firms such as these show all indication that they are thinking of access to justice beyond the “access to a lawyer” context. Their websites are emblazoned not with glitzy marketing schemes, but with mission statements.[16]  Their partners in private practice and academia submit Op-Eds to national media, calling for other firms and schools to create low bono nonprofit organizations.[17]  Their “collective lawyer generation,” as Knake might observe, is intent on innovating while embracing the legacy of social professionalism. And—perhaps most optimistically—their work gives cause for hope that more underserved litigants will get to taste justice.

 

For more on access to justice, visit the archived webinar of The Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy’s 2015 Symposium: Rationing Justice.

 

 

[1] Chantelle Wallace, How Clients Use Legal Reviews, Software Advice (May 28,2014) http://www.softwareadvice.com/legal/industryview/how-clients-use-legal-reviews-2014/.

[2] Id. (finding survey respondents with an annual income of $24,000 or less to be the least likely to use online reviews).

[3] See Legal Serv. Corp., 2014 LSC By the Numbers 1 (Aug. 2015), http://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2014-lsc-numbers

[4] See Who We Are, Legal Serv. Corp., http://www.lsc.gov/about-lsc/who-we-are (last visited Apr. 28, 2016)(noting individuals “who live in households with annual incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines – in 2015, $14,713 for an individual” are eligible for legal aid).

[5] See, e.g., Joy Moses, Grounds for Objection, Ctr. Am. Progress 3 (June 2011), https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2011/06/pdf/objection.pdf (highlighting the prevalence of pro se representation in family law, landlord-tenant law and probate matters).

[6] See Symposium Panel at the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics: Remaining Ethical Lawyers in a Changing Profession (Mar. 28, 2016), https://apps.law.georgetown.edu/webcasts/eventDetail.cfm?eventID=2921.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] D.C. Affordable L. Firm, http://www.dcaffordablelaw.org/ (last visited Apr. 28, 2016).

[13] Our Story, D.C. Affordable L. Firm, http://www.dcaffordablelaw.org/about-the-firm/our-story/ (last visited Apr. 28, 2016).

[14] See Symposium, supra note 6.

[15] Id.

[16] See Our Story, supra note 13 (“We seek to create a sustainable, low bono model for making access to lawyers a reality for D.C.’s underserved populations.”).

[17] William M. Treanor and Jane H. Aiken, Opinion, Too Many Lawyers? Not in D.C., Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/too-many-lawyers-not-in-dc/2015/11/27/fbb99b0e-921d-11e5-8aa0-5d0946560a97_story.html