Legal Education and the Justice Gap

April 29th, 2016 / By

I read recently about an organization that provides efficient, effective legal services to low- and middle-income clients. The organization, Chicago’s Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (“CARPLS“), has been serving clients for almost a quarter century. They currently help about 28,000 clients a year at an average cost of just $33 per consultation. How do they do it? And what can legal educators learn from CARPLS’s success? Read on.

Secrets for Efficient Delivery of Legal Services

Let’s start with the secrets of CARPLS’s success. There seem to be four keys to the program’s efficient service:

1. Most Legal Problems Are Simple

Americans have lots of law-related questions, but most of those questions have simple answers. Tenants want to know how to file a complaint against a landlord. Unhappy couples need the forms to file for an uncontested divorce. Disgruntled homeowners want to know if they can sue a noisy neighbor.

CARPLS realizes that, with the right expertise and personnel, it can quickly solve many legal problems. If the problem is complex, CARPLS refers clients to Legal Aid or other organizations that might help. Solving just the “simple” problems, though, goes a long way toward closing the justice gap. And, although the problems may seem simple to lawyers, the solutions can save a client’s home, job, or child support.

2. Lawyers Give the Best Answers to Simple Questions

It’s tempting to assign simple problems to paralegals, students, and other non-lawyers. CARPLS, however, endorses the opposite approach: Experienced lawyers answer client calls and offer the first response. After talking to the client, the lawyer decides how to triage the problem. Is it a matter the client can handle on her own with just a little direction? If more help is needed, could a paralegal or student provide that assistance? Or does the client need more extensive advice from a lawyer?

This approach seems to work for three reasons. First, the lawyers answering CARPLS’s calls have extensive expertise backed up by a computerized knowledge base. With those resources, they probably can answer questions more quickly and cost-effectively than lower-paid workers who would require more time and supervision.

Second, simple legal questions can mask complex problems. A good lawyer can ferret out those complexities and provide a proper referral. Putting lawyers upfront saves time and resources in the end.

Finally, clients may want the reassurance provided by a real lawyer’s answer. Again, many legal questions stem from life-altering problems. A CARPLS lawyer may give a caller the same answer that she would get from a paralegal, web search, or self-help book, but getting the answer from a licensed lawyer provides a special form of reassurance.

3. Knowledge Management Is Essential

An experienced lawyer knows the answers to hundreds of questions, but no one remembers everything. CARPLS supplements its lawyers’ expertise with a software system that manages client data, legal rules, and simple forms. Lawyers shouldn’t have to research issues repeatedly; they should be able to depend upon carefully maintained databases for answers. CARPLS acts on that principle.

4. Specialized Training Is Essential Too

CARPLS relies upon volunteer lawyers to perform some of its work, and it gives those volunteers detailed training. Many legal questions have very specific answers governed by state law, and CARPLS volunteers need to know those answers. The organization’s online training programs, which supplement in-person training, show how carefully CARPLS trains its lawyers.

Lessons for Legal Education

CARPLS embodies a successful approach to serving low- and middle-income clients. Other organizations may offer equally successful paths, but CARPLS clearly has found one way that works. In addition to serving as a model for legal services, what lessons does CARPLS offer legal education? Here are three:

1. Some Old Ways Are Probably Good Ways

CARPLS’s reliance on lawyers, rather than paralegals, for diagnosis and triage of legal problems suggests that lawyers excel at those tasks. That excellence, I suspect, stems in part from law school’s focus on critical thinking and broad conceptual knowledge. Legal educators, in other words, are right to defend those traditions and resist the training of narrow specialists.

It would be nice, though, to validate that thesis more directly. Cognitive scientists have studied experts in other fields to identify the roots of their expertise. Could we do the same in law, building on CARPLS’s insight that lawyers make the best diagnosticians? Teams of lawyers and cognitive scientists could study working lawyers to identify the foundations of their professional expertise. In addition to informing our educational programs, this research might teach us the particular value that lawyers add to problem solving.

2. We Need to Prepare Students to Answer Simple Questions

Although the traditional JD program has great strengths, it also has weaknesses. One of them is that we don’t prepare students to answer the many simple, routine questions that clients pose. We teach students to look for complexities and novel problems. But just as doctors see many more cases of strep throat than throat cancer, our graduates will handle many more routine legal cases than precedent-setting ones.

We need to reform our curriculum so that we teach students how to address routine problems, while maintaining their ability to spot and solve more complex ones. That’s not an easy balance to strike, but it lies at the heart of professional practice. I don’t have a magic solution to the problem, but I discuss the issues further in a recent paper.

3. Teach and Study the Efficient Delivery of Legal Services

Until recently, law schools virtually ignored the delivery of legal services. We taught the substance, and let our graduates figure out the delivery. That omission had two serious consequences: (a) It fostered reliance on expensive, customized services for all clients; and (b) it greatly hampered the delivery of legal services to clients who could not afford those elegant, hand-tailored solutions.

Our disdain for delivery also fostered some of the recent shocks to the legal market. Corporations and other wealthy clients began to demand more efficient delivery systems, and lawyers scrambled to respond. Many law firms are still floundering to reform their old-fashioned delivery models.

Teaching, researching, and theorizing about the delivery of legal services would help both lawyers and their clients. Let’s get to it.


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