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LSC’s James Sandman: We Need Technology & Paraprofessionals

Editor’s note: The author of this post is a fellow at CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics and is a member of the California bar.

By Monica Bay, Fellow, CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics

James Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation, has been immersed in the challenge of providing basic civil legal services to the underprivileged.

Before joining LSC, Sandman served as president of the District of Columbia bar from 2006-2007, and from 2007 to 2011, Sandman served as general counsel for the District of Columbia Public Schools. He earned his J.D. at University of Pennsylvania Law School, which honored him with its Howard Lesnick Pro Bono Award in 2011.

Sandman and Bay were panelists at the recent American Bar Association-Stanford Law “National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services.” In July, Bay interviewed Sandman and he suggested that online do-it-yourself services, and paraprofessionals, have been a big help, but lawyers need to understand the magnitude of the problem.

Interview Excerpts:

Eighty percent of Americans can’t find — or afford — legal services, even for crucial life events such as home foreclosure, domestic abuse, child protection, etc.

Most Americans don’t realize that there is no right to counsel in a civil case.

It is common for more than 90 percent of tenants facing eviction to be without a lawyer — even though more than 90% of landlords do. Last year in New York state 1.8 million people appeared in state courts without counsel.

Our regulatory system stultifies innovation and constricts the ability of competent, qualified non-lawyers to provide assistance to clients in the way that nurses and physicians’ assistants provide medical care to patients.

Technology allows us to push out information to the public that was previously accessible only to lawyers.

The do-it-yourself movement is pervasive across all segments of the economy today. It’s not going away, and anyone who thinks law is immune to it is delusional.

Bay: What is the scope of LSC and your duties?

J Sandman_10x15_RGB@300Sandman: LSC is the United States’ single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income people. We make grants to 134 independent, non-profit legal aid organizations serving every county in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the territories. LSC is a non-profit corporation established by an act of Congress in 1974. It is headed by a bipartisan board of directors whose 11 members are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

As president of LSC, I approve all grants; manage the oversight of our grantees to ensure they are providing high quality legal services and are fiscally sound; and promote access to justice for those who cannot afford counsel to deal with civil legal matters.

Bay: What is the most pressing problem for consumers?

Sandman: At the recent “National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services,” presented by the American Bar Association and Stanford Law School, participants frequently stated that more than 80 percent of Americans can’t find — or afford — legal services, even for crucial life events such as home foreclosure, domestic abuse, child protection, etc. Another attendee said that average solo lawyers can’t afford their own rates.

Bay: What has caused this trend and what ramifications do consumers face?

Sandman: There are multiple causes:
• Wholly inadequate resources to fund civil legal aid for the 63 million people who are financially eligible for it. [Note: See LCS Funding]
• Sky-high law school tuition that drives up lawyers’ costs.
•  A regulatory system that stultifies innovation and constricts the ability of competent, qualified non-lawyers to provide assistance to clients in the way that nurses and physicians’ assistants provide medical care to patients.
• Severe financial pressures on the middle class.

The consequences for consumers are devastating. Millions of people who cannot afford legal assistance are forced to navigate the legal system alone. Last year in New York State, for example, 1.8 million people appeared in state courts without counsel. In courthouses across the U.S., it is common for more than 90 percent of tenants facing eviction to be without a lawyer — even though more than 90 percent of landlords do have counsel. Many parties in family law matters, including child custody and child support cases, have no lawyer.

These are matters that involve the basics of life: safety, sustenance and family stability. We have legal system that was largely created by lawyers for lawyers and built on the assumption that you have a lawyer. It’s a system that works pretty well if you have a lawyer and not well at all if you don’t. Litigants forced to represent themselves often experience poor outcomes even if they have meritorious claims or defenses. Can you imagine a system less user-friendly to people without lawyers?

Bay: What is the biggest challenge for LSC?

Sandman: Inadequate funding for civil legal aid. There was an explosion in the size of the poverty population during the great recession and it really has not abated. LSC funding per financially eligible person is, in inflation-adjusted dollars, near an all-time low.

Addressing that challenge is particularly hard because of widespread ignorance of the crisis in access to civil justice facing our country today. Most Americans don’t realize that there is no right to counsel in a civil case. They don’t realize that you can lose your home, you can have your children taken away from you, you can be a victim of domestic violence in need of a protection order and you have no right to counsel if you can’t afford to pay. Even within the legal profession there is insufficient understanding of the magnitude of the problem. So we work hard to educate people about the problem.

Bay: What needs to be done to assure that citizens can find and get competent legal services?

Sandman: We need more and better do-it-yourself resources, particularly online. We need to relax regulatory barriers that impede competent paraprofessionals in assisting people who can’t afford counsel. We need to simplify the legal system to make it more user-friendly for people who don’t have counsel. The system is far more complicated than it needs to be, especially in areas of law affecting the necessities of life for people who can’t afford a lawyer. We need to develop pricing models and service-delivery systems that permit lawyers to earn a decent living without charging rates that only the wealthy can afford.

Bay: How do you see technology changing legal services?

Sandman: Technology allows us to push out information to the public that was previously accessible only to lawyers. It can provide user-friendly form-preparation assistance for the unrepresented, much like TurboTax helps people prepare tax forms. It can stretch limited resources for legal aid providers, allowing them to automate processes that lawyers used to handle. It can enable legal aid offices to offer some assistance to people they otherwise would have to turn away with nothing. It can assist pro bono lawyers taking on matters in areas of practice that may be new to them. It can help increase the efficiency of routine business processes. LSC’s “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice” provides a blueprint.

Bay: Has bar resistance to self-help changed?

Sandman: For decades, the organized bars strongly resisted “self-help” services and lawyer advertising, citing concerns about unauthorized practice of law. Last year, the ABA agreed to a pilot project with San Francisco-based Rocket Lawyer designed to help both consumers (to find lawyers) and attorneys (to find business). Meanwhile, competitors including  Avvo, LegalZoom and others are thriving, all using technology and websites to help consumers and lawyers.

Big Law Business: What is the impact of these companies and how are they changing the deliver of legal services?

Sandman It’s too early to tell for sure, but the usage figures I’ve seen show that they’re on the rise and having an impact. The do-it-yourself movement is pervasive across all segments of the economy today. It’s not going away, and anyone who thinks law is immune to it is delusional. These players are making legal information much more accessible. They are simplifying and routinizing processes for dealing with the most commonly occurring legal problems. And they are reducing costs to consumers.

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