Access to justice is a serious problem, especially in North America. The World Justice Project 2015 results demonstrate that when it comes to access to justice no lawyer in the US or Canada should sleep well at night:
- Among 102 countries that the Project studies in detail every year, Canada is currently 41st when it comes to its citizens having access to civil justice. Its score puts it on par with Albania, Sierra Leone, Kyrgyzstan and Cote d’Ivoire.
- And the US is even worse — 62nd and mired in the bottom half — with the same access to justice as provided in Pakistan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Ecuador.
Thus, it’s fair to conclude from such awful results that the public gets short-changed in the bargain it made with the legal profession by entrusting lawyers with a kind of mass-monopoly to practice law.
Let’s take a look at how these failures occur in the real world. Access to justice is essentially a function of proximity, education and price:
- Proximity remains a problem wherever there are very few means to reach legal advice. Traditionally, for example, this has been the case with lawyers in rural areas. If the legal problem is more specialized, geography becomes a disproportionally bigger issue, although the Internet has mitigated (but not alleviated) that access problem.
- Education, being the education of legal service consumers, is still lacking widely but also can be improved substantially due to technology. What it needs though is providers who are keen to educate the public. So far, lawyers — and the rest of the legal system, including courts and governments — have generally done a lousy job in this regard.
- Finally, Price, not surprisingly, the single biggest hindrance to access to justice. Legal advice in Canada and the United States is insanely expensive for the large majority of consumers because it is delivered extremely inefficiently. That can only in part (but in large part) be blamed on lawyers themselves.
Let’s look first at this largest hurdle — price. Access to justice is grossly unaffordable for consumers and small businesses. Its cost can cripple them. This is the case not just for “poor people”, but for more than 99% of the population. Research by the Canadian Bar Association suggests that only one-in-seven legal issues (roughly 15%) are actually addressed by a lawyer.
Technology addresses those basic needs in the legal services market that can be met with fairly straight-forward automated processes. These offerings have huge potential to improve both the proximity and the price challenges in providing affordable access to justice.
That means about 85% of this business-to-consumer (B2C) market is currently dormant. Can and will practicing lawyers play a significant role in unlocking this market and thus benefit from it? My speculation is that they will not. Instead, technology will be the great leveler, and it will make life incrementally and increasingly difficult for many lawyers who serve consumer and small business clientele.
Technology — as we’ve already seen with online legal facilitators like LegalZoom and others — addresses those basic needs in the legal services market that can be met with fairly straight-forward automated processes. These offerings have huge potential to improve both the proximity and the price challenges in providing affordable access to justice. Their technological solutions will continue to evolve, allowing these tech facilitators to handle a much larger variety of issues and to cover more jurisdictions, especially as the cost of incremental development comes down. While today, these services can address only a few percent of the legal needs in the consumer market, technological improvements will quickly increase that to 15% to 20%. By then, the game is already over because lawyers and law firms who are serving the consumer market lack all the resources necessary to compete with LegalZoom and others.
The big inhibitor for barreling down this path is not technology, however. It is customer adoption, i.e. the education challenge in access to justice. Ultimately, people need to be comfortable with using an app to deal with their legal issues and only speak to a “human” lawyer if it is really necessary.
Enter Avvo and other services that help you find the lawyer who actually knows how to handle your issue. They address the proximity, education and price challenges in obtaining access to justice from a different angle: The goal of these companies is to get the right people onto the right job. And at the right price.
And as the demand from consumers is aggregated into fewer channels and is controlled by tech-based businesses (whether run by lawyers or not) who have managed to provide access to justice, lawyers who depend on instructions in the B2C market will have an increasingly hard time competing, thriving and, ultimately, surviving.