Ask just about any solo or small firm practitioner how much justice they serve in their day to day practice and their answer will be very little. When confronted by clients seeking a higher justice, lawyers are often forced to respond that the system is broken or bring up cost. Similarly, Legal Aid, LSC, and other foundations toil with impossible budgets to reach a few among millions who need help with thousands of issues. They do the best they can, knowing a higher justice is elusive, if not illusory.
Part of the problem is the lawyers are generally acting as firefighters. Lawyers are called into action in the midst of a crisis—during a pending lawsuit or criminal charge. It is easy for lawyers to blame wayward clients. If those pesky clients would simply be more responsible they would not need to seek justice so often. Lawyers are, of course, secretly pleased to have found a client suffering from a complex mix of circumstances and dose of their own irresponsibility. Lawyers have been trained that justice is sought in the midst of the fire. Meanwhile, the consumer generally perceives that lawyers go to court, file motions, argue at hearings, await Court rulings and do nothing more.
Research, however, in the disciplines of social work, sociology, and medicine conclude that the delivery of legal services is an important social determinant of health. In other words, seeing a lawyer is good for your health. Certainly, this concept is very foreign to both lawyers and consumers. The research indicates that diminishing or avoiding legal problems before the crisis, in a precautionary and preventative manner, will add to family stability, health, and overall welfare. When a crisis is avoided so are the financial tradeoffs necessary to manage it. When families are forced to make choices among food, housing, education, health care, or legal services, something must suffer. Anecdotally lawyers know this to be true as they have thought or told their clients countless times, ‘had you just saw me a week, a month or a year ago this all could have been avoided.’ The intention should be to prevent a downward spiral that can result in health, legal and financial problems.
There are innumerable for-profit, non-profit and government entities that assist in balancing the tradeoffs, in all but law. With law, there is one basic model to assist the vast majority of consumers—the small firm or solo private practitioner. In theory, the legal profession certainly wants to make a larger contribution. In practice, an understandable question is, what dent could a lawyer make and at what cost? This is not another article requesting that lawyers do more pro bono. Nor is this another article decrying the lack of legal aid funding. Although more funding would be wonderful, the profession must face the realization that there is little public support. Except for the poorest of the poor, the American perspective has always been everyone’s legal problem is their own and that is not changing.
This is an article asking lawyers to seek and tap an enormous and lucrative marketplace for the benefit of themselves and consumers. As the 2017 LSC Justice Gap Report notes, 60 million families have incomes at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. The gap goes beyond low-income families. The 2016 ABA Report on The Future of Legal Services in the United States concludes individuals of all income levels often do not recognize they have a legal need and even if they do they frequently do not seek legal services. This marketplace is nearly all clients that solo and small practitioners think they already reach. However, it seems they reach only a few and those they do reach are in the midst of a crisis.
To reach these clients and provide preventative and precautionary care lawyers must change their business models. Low cost fixed fees will very often replace high hourly rates. Unbundled services must be the norm. Legal services must be delivered at scale. The revenue to lawyers per job will decrease and so must the cost lawyers incur to complete the job. Technology and efficiency are the keys to success. In the end, profits rise based upon the volume of the work performed. As the Reports above note, an enormous market is there to be tapped if the correct model is in place to reach it.
Thus, frankly, there is money in this for lawyers. There is equally societal good: fewer tradeoffs and downward spirals for clients, and hence, better health, education, and welfare. Such business models exist within the legal profession but remain in the margin for most lawyers. The legal profession in the coming years must pay close attention to medical-legal partnerships, Group Legal Service Plans, and the few lawyers concentrating on legal check-ups and unbundled services. Lawyers should make any one or all of this part of their practice today. Meanwhile, bar associations, legal aid foundations, and courts should seek collaborations with those private practice lawyers willing to work on closing the justice gap utilizing the revised business models. The privatization of this work will unleash an army of lawyers to address the growing justice gap.
Finally, the profession must make consumers understand that seeking preventative legal services is actually good for their financial health and ultimately their physical well being. Along the way, this will lead to a healthier legal profession as well. Interested in discussing? Reach out to me here.