Pro Bono News

Clients Need Legal Services but Not Necessarily Lawyers

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Clients Need Legal Services but Not Necessarily Lawyers

"A recent New York Times Opinion piece, “Everyone Needs Legal Help. That Doesn’t Mean Everyone Needs a Lawyer” spotlights Rebecca Sandefur, a sociologist whose career has focused on studying lawyers. The “genius” MacArthur fellowship she received for her work is evidence that one need not have a law license to opine meaningfully about the legal profession/industry.

Ms. Sandefur published an article making the case that lawyers are not required to resolve many common legal issues. She turns the “access to justice crisis” on its head, asserting that it is not a matter of unmet legal need but the byproduct of a complex, inward-looking web of rules lawyers have created. Sandefur contends:

‘The access-to-justice crisis is bigger than law and lawyers. It is a crisis of exclusion and inequality. Today, access to justice is restricted: only some people, and only some kinds of justice problems, receive lawful resolution. Access is also systematically unequal….Traditionally, lawyers and judges call this a “crisis of unmet legal need.” It is not. Justice is about just resolution, not legal services. Resolving justice problems lawfully does not always require lawyers’ assistance, as a growing body of evidence shows. Because the problem is unresolved justice issues, there is a wider range of options. Solutions to the access-to-justice crisis require a new understanding of the problem. It must guide a quest for just resolutions shaped by lawyers working with problem-solvers in other disciplines and with other members of the American public whom the justice system is meant to serve. 

Sandefur is acutely aware of and unencumbered by the legal profession’s cultural biases—a self-selecting, self-perpetuating guild that is insular, homogeneous, protectionist, and monopolistic. Lawyers have long determined what is “legal” and have created language, rules, regulatory schemes, and economic models designed to reinforce the myth of legal exceptionalism. Sandefur lays out the record of that culture—an unequal, exclusionary justice system that yields widespread unresolved justice issues, an erosion of the rule of law, and the false impression that only lawyers can solve these problems. Her focus is addressing the problem, not reconfiguring the traditional legal delivery paradigm to achieve incrementally better results. Is her proposal too radical? There is growing evidence that the marketplace is receptive to Ms. Sandefur’s call for a paradigm shift, and consumers are increasingly indifferent to stiff resistance from the legal profession.

Sandefur contends that the answer to resolving justice problems requires lawyers to collaborate with other disciplines, use new tools-notably technology, and create new paradigms focused on achieving better client/societal results. To date, the focus has been on preserving the traditional partnership model and elevating profit-per-partner. As Ms. Sandefur says, the problem is “bigger than law and lawyers.” Most lawyers continue to resist ‘non-lawyer’ efforts to infringe upon what they regard as their professional territorial imperative and economic model. In the age of the consumer, lawyer hubris and self-regulation might slow, but not reverse, the paradigmatic shift already underway in the emerging global legal industry..."

Continue reading