Collateral Damage: What Does Access to Justice Really Mean for Attorneys?

The battle for access to justice (or A2J, if you can dig it) is being fought on two fronts.  There is, of course, the traditional notion, that lawyers should be connected with those most marginalized members of society via a pro bono or ‘low bono’ model; but, the definition of ‘those who can’t afford a lawyer’ has changed over time, as wealth continues to stratify in the United States.  At this point, some of the focus has shifted to potential clients in the middle class (including the lower middle class and the upper middle class), who can no longer afford what lawyers charge — if they ever could.  Part of the problem is that real wages have been stagnating for decades.  And, it hasn’t helped that DIY legal options, like Legal Zoom, have become entrenched in society.  Consumers who are willing to proceed on a self-help model have options, and are willing to access them, even if they’re adding to their risk portfolio by doing so.

But, even as the target client list of the A2J model has been expanded, what remains unclear is the effect that the expansion of A2J services will have on lawyers in an already hypercompetitive environment, especially in consideration of the continued advance of legal-facing technology.  Machine learning, automation, improved intake protocols, the extension of internet access, the ubiquity of the smartphone and even the A2J movement itself have made possible a future in which lawyers are largely cut out of the A2J model.  If the bulk of a client’s questions can be answered by plugging them into an app, where does the lawyer fit in?  In theory, an attorney practicing at the top of his law license would delight in automation that removes the necessity of his presence for the answering of basic questions — that strips down the intake burden, and increases the value of the lawyer’s contribution — but in A2J, there is no pot of gold awaiting at the end of that rainbow, because the A2J client is not paying a premium cost for the creative services a smart and experienced lawyer can provide.

So, this begs the question(s):  What is the end of A2J for lawyers?  Is the object to replace the majority of a lawyer’s functions with technology?  Does this eliminate legal jobs, or effectuate a paring down of the bar rolls — which is maybe not a bad thing?  Does it fundamentally change the way lawyers practice, influencing a revision of the way lawyers work?  Is that a good thing, if it means that lawyers end up performing higher level work more of the time?  Or, is there a volume problem, in that there is not enough of that higher level work to go around?  In the defining of new roles for lawyers and legal technology, is the goal of A2J to incorporate technology to feed clients to lawyers, at a point where they can pay for limited services that require human interaction?

The crux of the A2J question for the average solo and small firm lawyer (the vast majority of whom are not the actual decisionmakers in this realm) is just how much of the pie gets left behind for them.  If technology can be used to source potential pro bono, fee shifting or low bono clients for lawyers, if it acts as a higher-level, better-leveraged lawyer referral service, then that’s probably a good thing; but, to the extent that that same technology ends up replacing lawyers’ work, it’s, um, not so good.

And, that’s as good a reason as any for solo and small firm lawyers to get involved in discussions surrounding access to justice.

If you want to get started in that direction, the Boston Cambridge Legal Hackers meetup on May 15 at Social Law Library is a good place to start.

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Liner Notes

Caroline’ by Old Crow Medicine Show

Turns out, Caroline is good name to have if you want to get yourself into a country music song.