By Jake Hertz, Program Associate
As a new employee at Pro Bono Net, I attended the Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services in New York’s Second Annual Conference on Access to Justice and Law Schools as something of an outsider insider. I was in the legal services world, but not yet of it. My informed naiveté provides me with a unique perspective on the conference discussions, the justice gap, and the access to justice problems the Task Force is working to address.
In his summary remarks, Cardozo School of Law Dean, Matthew Diller, commented on the supply and demand issues of the legal community. In economics the beauty of supply and demand is that they are self-correcting. Too much demand, prices go up and demand goes down. Excess supply? Prices go down, the incentive to produce goes down with them, and supply returns to its equilibrium value. Dean Diller commented that critics who attempt to explain and simplify the problems facing the legal community with supply and demand typically overcomplicate and misrepresent the issues. Unlike in textbook economics, the legal community currently exists with excess supply and excess demand. We have an excess of young lawyers and not enough legal jobs to employ them all. At the same time, millions of litigants across the country need legal help, but can’t afford to access it. The situation makes analogies to the self-correcting world of economics of little help.That said, analogies are useful! The question is, what is the right analog for the problems facing the legal community? While listening to the panels and sessions at the Conference and reading the Task Force’s report, I kept thinking about the similarities between the problems under discussion and the well-known issues facing the medical community.
In the legal context, overwhelming need hurts litigants by effectively denying them access to counsel, it taxes the resources of the Courts, and in the end produces outsized monetary and human costs to society at large. In the end, litigants have their problems adjudicated but they do so in the least effective and efficient way possible. It is similar to providing basic medical care in the ER. In both settings, vulnerable populations are forced to receive services in the least efficient manner and in a way that produces the greatest costs to society. In some respects, the problem in the legal system is even worse. People might not be able to diagnose themselves, but through experience they can usually tell whether or not they need to go to the hospital. By contrast, without sufficient information persons often enter the legal system seeks remedies for problems that the Courts cannot solve.One of the most powerful findings in the Task Force’s 2012 report is that the return on investment in legal services is 6:1. Every dollar we invest in providing poor New Yorkers with legal services returns six dollars to the state at large! Again, the situation is very similar to the problems facing the medical community. By investing in preventative measures and ensuring that small problems are identified and solved before they become big ones, both fields can save millions of dollars and make their clients’ lives easier, healthier, and more productive.
Saving time by simplifying the solutions to small problems is a central challenge facing both the medical and legal communities, and with varying degrees of success both fields are investing in innovative technologies to adapt their 20th century practices to the 21st century. The importance of using electronic medical records to provide doctors with insight into their peers’ work is recognized throughout the profession. While information technology has revolutionized the practice of law through basic innovations such as email and electronic legal libraries, the legal community is just beginning to understand the vast potential for technology to further progress the profession with tools ranging from Google Docs and other cloud-based services collaboration to more complex uses including easing the process of compiling documents for pro se litigants and employing sophisticated computer programs to more efficiently triage individuals seeking legal help.. These innovations will ease and simplify clients’ interaction with the legal system, hopefully encouraging increased participation as people are become more inclined to seek out lawyers’ assistance.
One final important challenge facing both the legal and medical fields is how to best incorporate and utilize non-lawyer and non-doctor professionals. The medical community has been able to increase the breadth and scope of the services it provides by properly delegating and assigning responsibilities. As noted in testimony quoted in the Taskforce’s report:
Does a full fledged MD have to deliver every service needed to address every medical issue you face in order to receive quality care? No. Medical care is a team sport, provided by a wide variety of medical professionals: nurses, radiologic technologists, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physical therapists, chiropractors, registered massage therapists, certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, etc. Many of these providers are licensed and authorized to provide services directly to those with medical problems. They are not limited to working under the direct supervision of MDs. Thank goodness. Because if they were, we’d be paying MD rates for every sore throat and backache.
Technological innovations such as document assembly and mathematically-supported legal triage systems can increase the ability of non-lawyer legal professionals to provide services and thereby allowing JD-trained, bar licensed attorneys to address more complex and complicated issues that require their full attention and capabilities. The combination of technological innovations and greater roles for non-lawyer professionals offers the opportunity to bend the curves and allow the supply and demand of legal services to finally achieve a happy and stable equilibrium.