ABA summit offers innovative ideas on closing justice gap

July 2015 | Around the ABA

In the United States, 80 percent of the poor and people of moderate means do not have access to legal services and, depending on the state, 60 to 90 percent of litigants in family court are unrepresented.  “We can continue to operate as we have for the last two centuries and risk losing the people we are sworn to serve. Or we can engage in fresh thinking and fashion innovative ways to provide legal services to the public,” said William C. Hubbard, who has been sounding that clarion call since he picked up the gavel and became the leader of the American Bar Association last August.

More than 200 responded to Hubbard’s call to action by attending the National Summit on Innovation in the Legal Services May 2-4 at Stanford Law School.   Participants included justices from 10 state supreme courts, judges from state and federal trial courts, state and local bar association leaders, scholars, and others from within the legal profession—from big firm partners to solo practitioners to legal incubator pioneers.  But, what was remarkable about the gathering was the number of thought leaders from outside the profession—experts and activists from diverse fields, including medicine, engineering and information technology, who shared their success with out-of-the-box, innovative solutions.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services and Stanford University School of Law, was convened to “spark fresh thinking about the delivery of legal services and to find new, actionable ideas that are not constrained by traditional models and are rooted in the essential values of protecting the public, enhancing diversity and inclusion, and pursuing justice for all.”

“We must open our minds to innovative approaches and to leverage technology—smartphones, tablets, new software, the Internet, artificial intelligence—in order to identify new models to deliver legal services,” said Hubbard in his opening remarks. “Those who seek legal assistance expect us to deliver legal services differently. It is our duty to serve the public, and it is our duty to deliver justice, not just to some, but to all.”

The summit included thought-provoking speakers, TED-style talks and panelists who discussed challenges to innovation, innovation beyond the legal sphere and innovation within the legal profession

A broad array of innovative projects and fresh ideas for expanding the availability of more effective and more affordable legal services were showcased in mini-presentations during “Programs to Bridge the Gap:”

  • Andrew Perlman, vice chair of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, detailed how the curriculum at Suffolk University Law School, where he serves as dean-designate and professor, is evolving to prepare the next generation of lawyers.

  • Shantelle Argyle, co-founder and executive managing director of Open Legal Services, described how Utah’s first and only nonprofit law firm for clients with moderate income is providing  “low bono” legal services.

  • Laurie A. White, a criminal court judge from New Orleans, showed video footage of her brainchild, the Orleans Parish Re-entry Program, which operates with no funding at no cost to taxpayers.

  • Stephen R. Crossland, chair of the Limited License Legal Technician Board and past president of the Washington State Bar Association, explained how the new class of legal professionals is widening access to the judicial system.

While the summit focused mainly on civil justice issues, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, addressed criminal justice system reform.  In her keynote address, Ifill issued a call to action, urging lawyers to take a proactive stance to restore confidence in the criminal justice system. 

In a series of break-out sessions, attendees were divided into five working groups focused on overcoming obstacles and identifying and prioritizing possible solutions.  

Commission reporter Renee Knake, an ethics professor at Michigan State University College of Law, summarized the suggestions—from permitting equity sharing with nonlawyers, creating a universal online legal triage platform and establishing a right to counsel in civil cases to installing courtroom kiosks with cameras, enabling remote court proceedings and liberalizing advertising rules for innovative delivery and marketing.

Richard Barton, founder of Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor used a locomotive analogy to drive home a sense of urgency. The train is leaving the station—with or without us. Hop aboard. Be left behind. Or worse—get crushed beneath the mighty steel wheels, he said. More than one presenter evoked Walter Gretzky’s advice to his son, Wayne: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you become part of the menu,” said Hubbard. 

In her closing remarks, ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services Chair Judy Perry Martinez was plain spoken. “We have to make a difference, and the time to make it is now.”