Suffolk Law Dean Helps Lead Access to Justice Effort

Contributes to landmark ABA resolution
Lawyers from around the country came to the American Bar Association House of Delegates meeting in Austin, Texas in February 2020, with a controversial question at hand: Whether states should be encouraged to consider innovations in the regulation of legal services – alterations specifically designed to expand legal services to more Americans.
Dean Andrew Perlman
Dean Andrew Perlman

“The train is leaving the station. The ABA needs to be on that train,” said Suffolk Law Dean Andrew Perlman. The metaphorical train is the increasing number of states that are already adopting or considering regulatory innovations designed to address the access to justice gap—the large percentage of low and middle-income Americans who represent themselves with no lawyer when facing critical civil legal issues.

Perlman was the inaugural chair of the ABA Center for Innovation and the former vice chair of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services. He also was one of the drafters of ABA Resolution 115 and an accompanying report encouraging states to try new approaches to address the justice gap. 

The resolution passed overwhelmingly on February 17, 2020, and Perlman played a key role in the effort. He recently answered a few questions about his ABA work.

What drove the need for the resolution?

It’s the justice gap. We're falling farther and farther behind in terms of addressing the public's legal needs. What this resolution does is ask states to consider new ways of addressing those needs, including through regulatory reform. The problem is that traditional, non-regulatory solutions over the last several decades, including increased pro bono efforts by attorneys, additional funding for civil legal aid, and civil Gideon, have proven to be insufficient.

Given that these traditional solutions have not closed the gap, a number of states around the country are trying new approaches. The resolution says: look at those states, assess what they're doing, and considering trying some new approaches of your own.

Were there any specific innovations recommended in the resolution?

The resolution doesn’t specify what types of solutions states should try, though states are experimenting with a lot of new approaches. Some of them don’t require regulatory reform, such as the implementation of court-annexed online dispute resolution, the development of new tools and forms of assistance for pro se litigants, the expansion of virtual court services, the adoption of streamlined litigation processes, the use of technology to facilitate pro bono work, and the implementation of technology and innovation to help lawyers deliver their services more efficiently.

On the regulatory side, some states are experimenting with new approaches to the unauthorized practice of law, the creation of new categories of legal services providers, and changes to the rules that currently restrict lawyers’ ability to partner and share fees with other kinds of professionals. The resolution and report, however, do not take a position on these or any other kind of innovation.

Our intent was simply to get states to consider various kinds of innovations. Once we assess the data and see what works and doesn't work at the state level, we'll be in a better position to know whether it makes sense to recommend any changes to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and other model policies.

Is the passage of the resolution important?

Yes, because it puts the ABA on record as encouraging states to consider innovations, including regulatory innovations, in the delivery of legal services at a time when many states have started to consider and implement such changes. With the weight of the ABA behind the idea, more states are likely to do the same. And most importantly, my hope is that we will see fresh ideas about how we can best serve the public’s unmet legal needs.