Suffolk Law Dean Describes How Law Schools Can Ease the Justice Gap

Essay is part of an American Academy of Arts & Sciences project on lack of legal access for low-income Americans.

The scale of the national crisis in civil legal services is staggering, and Suffolk University Law School Dean Andrew Perlman is one of the voices examining the problem in the Winter 2019 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the article “The Public’s Unmet Need for Legal Services & What Law Schools Can Do about It,” Perlman points out three areas where law schools can begin to make an impact beyond their traditional free legal clinics.

Law schools can:

  • Teach the next generation of lawyers more efficient and less expensive ways to deliver legal services
  • Ensure that educational debt does not preclude lawyers from serving people of modest means
  • Conduct and disseminate research on alternative models for delivering legal services.
Innovations include web-based “guided interviews with easy-to-understand questions that, once answered, produce automatically generated legal forms.” And the Suffolk Law Legal Innovation and Technology Lab app “uses a TurboTax-like interface to generate letters for tenants to send to their landlords about a range of housing law–related issues and a tool that can help people identify public benefits to which they are legally entitled.”
Andrew Perlman Dean

Addressing the crisis

According to a recent report of the Legal Services Corporation, 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the previous year, yet they received inadequate or no legal help in 86 percent of the problems they reported.

The consequences were often devastating, since unrepresented litigants are at a distinct disadvantage in disputes over health care, housing conditions, veterans’ benefits, domestic violence, and access for people with disabilities, among other problems.

“Access to Justice,” the Winter 2019 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a multidisciplinary examination of this crisis, from the challenges of providing quality legal assistance to more people, to the social and economic costs of an often unresponsive legal system, to the opportunities for improvement offered by new technologies, professional innovations, and fresh ways of thinking about the crisis.

Legal education’s role

In his contribution to the journal, Perlman writes about innovations such as web-based “guided interviews with easy-to-understand questions that, once answered, produce automatically generated legal forms.” He discusses the Suffolk Law Legal Innovation and Technology Lab app that “uses a TurboTax-like interface to generate letters for tenants to send to their landlords about a range of housing law–related issues and a tool that can help people identify public benefits to which they are legally entitled.”

While significantly reducing law graduates’ debt should have some impact on access to justice, “the cumulative effect is likely to be more modest than the impact of teaching lawyers how to deliver their services more efficiently,” writes Perlman.

He suggests that permitting professionals other than lawyers to participate more meaningfully in the delivery of legal services might be a promising avenue to expanding access to justice. “An increasing number of courts are authorizing and regulating new categories of legal-services providers, such as document preparers, courthouse navigators, and limited license legal technicians,” he notes in the article.

Perlman is one of a diverse group of authors, including scholars, lawyers, judges, and business and nonprofit leaders, who discuss efforts needed to address the fundamental problems of restricted and unequal access to justice in the new issue of Daedalus. Guest editors are Lincoln Caplan. journalist and author; Yale Law School; Lance Liebman, Columbia Law School; and Rebecca L. Sandefur, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, American Bar Foundation, 2018 MacArthur Fellow.

This issue of Dædalus is part of a larger, ongoing effort of the American Academy to gather information about the national need for improved legal access, study innovations piloted around the country to fill this need, and advance a set of clear, national recommendations for closing the justice gap — between supply and demand for services provided by lawyers and other problem-solvers.

All of the Access to Justice essays are freely available online.

Contact

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs
617-573-8428

Michael Fisch
617-573-5751