With the 21st Annual Law Firm Leaders Forum just around the corner, it reminded me of one recent conversation I had during last year’s event that came to epitomize the quality of both the discussions and the speakers at this annual event.
Mr. Hubbard spoke at length with the Legal Executive Institute (LEI) about a subject very close to his heart and one that has guided his career as a legal professional — the issue of access to justice for all citizens regardless of race, gender or income level.
Legal Executive Institute: You spoke a lot at this Forum about access to justice, and where that is now, and what kind of responsibility law firms are taking with it. Overall, is this something that’s becoming a bigger problem, or is it something that’s been a problem, and it really needs to be addressed?
William C. Hubbard: It’s been a big problem for a long time. The first study that I recall documenting the scope of the problem was a report that came out of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), probably a dozen years ago. It pegged the civil justice gap at about 80% of the poor, and a growing number of those of moderate means, who do not have adequate access to our justice system.
Subsequent to that, the studies don’t show that we’ve closed the gap — and if anything, there’s a growing problem given the income disparity in our country. I don’t have the data that proves that yet, but it certainly has not gotten any better, in spite of a renewed emphasis on pro bono work.
One major problem contributing to this gap is the lack of funding for the LSC. I think the current proposal in the federal budget is about $300 million, and if it were funded based on the normal cost and inflationary increases, it should be funded now at about $1 billion.
During this year’s Law Firm Leaders Forum, William C. Hubbard will participate in a panel, entitled, “The Future of Legal Services in the United States: The ABA Issues a Clarion Call for Change” on Oct. 6.
LEI: You talk about the responsibility of law firms to get involved in helping alleviate this crisis. What can they do?
Hubbard: This is where I think the challenge and the opportunity is — it’s to develop innovative new approaches, using technology, using smartphones, using Internet-based platforms to reach people where they are, instead of requiring them to come to a law office. Instead of having a meeting in a law office, we can use places where the people are, like homeless shelters or public libraries. And, also importantly, we can have people who are not necessarily lawyers, but are skilled in advising people, to play a greater role in this. One of my mentors, LSC President Jim Sandman, often says that some competent assistance is better than no assistance.
So, if there are processes and platforms that allow us to represent people on a broader scale, maybe we should use them. To move the needle, we created the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, and we partnered with the Conference of Chief Justices, and the National Center for State Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center, and the Association of American Law Schools. We’re all trying to determine if we can devise new methods and platforms. With their expertise, law firms can add value to these efforts.
LEI: This innovative approach, the technology-based approach which you talked about a lot at this Forum, is that something you can envision large law firms involved with?
Hubbard: I think that if we engage large law firms, it may be easier to deliver more efficient pro bono work, with the right platform and with the right software programs and with the right collaborations and connections, to the people who need it most.
I think there’s great opportunity. We could take a big leap forward if we go to those firms, and say, “All right, we have this technology, we have this platform. All we need from you is a sustained commitment, so that we can train your people and have the work done.”
What we need to do, with law firms, is get a support group of folks within firms who are committed to working on a certain kind of matter, whether it’s protective orders for victims of domestic violence, evictions, or immigration and deportation questions. Get law firms to make the commitment to train people, and then use the technology that’s available to speed up the process and make it more efficient. I think there’s tremendous opportunity there.
I also think that law firms could learn a lot from the legal aid providers in this country, who, by necessity, have devised all sorts of easier to navigate portals for access to our justice system, such as kiosks, navigators, and self-help computer programs. They’re really at the forefront.
LEI: You also spoke about pro bono, and said that the percentage of overall legal spend that goes to pro bono is still a small sliver, and it’s smaller than it should be. How do you convey that part of it to law firms?
Hubbard: There are large law firms who make pro bono an absolute priority. They’re committed to it, and their numbers show that commitment. It’s just that not every firm is equally committed to doing pro bono work. Some take it more seriously than others.
Some may just need help in getting a protocol established so that they’re just not waiting on a call from the court, saying that a certain lawyer has been assigned to represent a person. They need to develop platforms and practices that make it easy for their talent to be transferred or applied to a pro bono program.
Again, I think the best way big law firms can help is to take on a segment or a type of pro bono work, and train their people to do a particular type of matter — for example, representation of unaccompanied minors in immigration court.
LEI: You also mentioned the public needs to be educated about their rights to access under the law too.
Hubbard: That’s right. There has to be a better way to inform the poorest of the poor that an eviction notice has some legal connotation of consequence. Many people simply don’t recognize a legal problem as a legal problem. When they even consider that it has legal ramifications, they have such a dim view of their situation that they may dismiss it, saying “It’s part of God’s plan, or this kind of stuff just happens to me, and that’s just my plight in life.” If, somehow, we could provide more encouragement, and make it easy for them to know that there’s a way to engage the legal system, we could make a difference.
In fact, some states are making progress with a single legal portal and widely advertising it — saying for example, that if you have a legal problem, this is the number you can call. And then you have to have well-trained navigators on the receiving end who can disperse the cases, or assign the matters to people who are qualified and know how to handle those kinds of matters.
It’s something that the Legal Services Corporation has advocated — that there would be a single portal for all people in a state to be able to go to in order to engage the legal system.