Access to Justice: An Old Approach

People need help with more and more legal problems. Working people make too much money to qualify for legal aid, but too little for a private lawyer. There’s nowhere for them to go for help and reliable information, even for routine matters.

I’m not writing about now. I’m writing about 1971, when two legal aid lawyers founded Nolo Press. They saw an access to justice problem: the only way for people to get information about their legal problem was to hire a lawyer whose hourly rate was sixteen times their wage. The solution: provide the information people needed to resolve routine legal matters themselves. And because this was 1971, “providing information” meant publishing books.

The access to justice problem is still with us, but companies like Nolo have helped by giving millions of consumers the information they need. Yet these companies don’t get much credit.

Lawyers dismiss legal self-help books and software out of hand. We assume the result is poor quality (and we’ve all heard a horror story to prove it). But is it? How many of us have read one of Nolo’s books ourselves? Is the small-town general practitioner likely to produce a better will than an informed consumer with a software program?

While lawyers in general dismiss legal self-help publishing, the access to justice conversation has seemed to ignore it. Access to justice is about technology, AI, bots, apps, low-bono business models, non-lawyer ownership, online dispute resolution, and the like. Books? Been there, tried that, and A2J is still a problem. Move on.

Of course there is a limit to what written words can do on their own. Nolo’s presence hasn’t stopped the access to justice problem from growing in the past 40 years. For routine legal matters like uncontested divorce or simple wills—sure, write a book. But when faced with any moderately complex problem, most people want or need help from a professional. So written words have their limit.

But we’re not even close to reaching it.

You can see that in the struggles courts face everywhere as self-represented litigants increase. The first steps these courts take is to make more specific legal information available. They publish guides and forms. Courts become little de facto self-help publishers. Will these courts ever reach the point of publishing every piece of information that could be useful to self-represented parties? Of course not.

And local courts deal with just one part of the vast realm of legal information. Most of that information is locked away in lawyers’ heads. We spend our entire careers helping perhaps a few thousand clients one at a time, while gaining practical legal knowledge that could help tens or hundreds of thousands.

What if that information were published? Why don’t more lawyers think of sharing their knowledge more broadly?

I can think of a few reasons:

  • Writing is hard as hell (as Scalia put it).
  • Many lawyers don’t like writing.
  • Lawyers have done pretty well charging premium fees for one-at-a-time service. There’s little financial incentive to write.
  • Lawyers have a hard time setting aside the time to write and avoiding interruptions.
  • Lawyers think publishing legal advice to a broad audience is risky.
  • Lawyers don’t trust consumers to understand them.
  • Lawyers think self-help legal publishing is low-quality, generic, and too vague to be useful.

These are all significant challenges. But language is a marvelously powerful thing. With a little creativity and work, each challenge can be overcome.

  • Like anything that’s hard, for writing you develop a process and attack it bit by bit.
  • You don’t have to like writing—you just have to like the huge reward of having written something good.
  • Writing and publishing is one of the best business development activities. It also turns your valuable knowledge into a product that can be sold a limitless number of times.
  • Deep work is more important than your emails, phone calls, and meetings, and making time for it will make you a better lawyer.
  • Lots of people have published lots of advice to lots of readers. Their careers have generally been helped, not hurt.
  • If you don’t trust consumers to understand you, your clients probably don’t either. Get better at communication. Writing will help you develop that skill.
  • We don’t have to settle for low-quality publishing. There’s no reason why it can’t be excellent, specific, and useful.

We’ve never had more resources and tools available to make publishing legal information both low-cost and high-quality. We’re no longer limited to text printed on bound pages. Legal information can and should be published online, updated frequently, purchased on a subscription model, supported by audio and video, made interactive, and more.

Companies like Nolo and LegalZoom are already on this mission. Modern technology makes every lawyer a potential author and publisher. There’s plenty of work to do.

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