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How You Can Help Solve the Access to Justice Problem

Sam Bock

Yesterday was Giving Tuesday. Following a frenzied weekend of sale-driven shopathons, it was a day to spend money on worthy causes instead of more stuff as we kick off the holiday season. Did you participate?

Whether you did or didn’t, consider this: you, as a member of the legal profession, have valuable skills and expertise to share with your community all year long. You can help close the gap in access to justice, and that is an ongoing cause to be proud of.

Earlier this month, we talked about some of the more prevalent barriers to greater access to justice, covering a Relativity Fest panel on the topic. Those barriers included insufficient funding, high costs, a lack of right to counsel in common legal circumstances, and a lack of awareness about legal rights, services, and procedures.

Today, we’re following up with some of the panel’s best tips on how every legal professional can contribute to closing the gap. Here’s how you can help promote the virtue of “justice for all.”

Tactic #1: Engage with Your Community

Overall, solving the access to justice problem in America isn’t just about using increased funding or an extra pro bono project to put a bandage on a serious wound—it’s about improving the culture among professionals in the legal space. After all, these are the minds that will help ideate and establish real solutions.

During the panel, Zabrina Jenkins, managing director of litigation, law, and corporate affairs at Starbucks, shared how her team showcases an admirable example of that community-positive culture. In addition to conducting their wills clinic, the Starbucks team engages with their communities nationwide to address injustices and support neighbors in need.

“We have tried to have an impact on our communities by looking at how we can use our skills for good,” she explained. “About four years ago, starting in Ferguson, Missouri, we initiated a program to host job fairs. We recognized that tangential to access to justice is a need to employ people and keep them gainfully employed in their communities.” In other words, empowerment is key to creating lasting justice.

“It started simple: we reached out to other corporations to join forces on it, bringing in employers to conduct interviews. It was just an opportunity to invite people to learn about these companies and gain employment,” she went on. “But we learned that there were additional barriers—things people take for granted. I'm happy to say one component of our fairs now is bringing in lawyers to work on records expungements. We’re also teaching young men how to tie a tie so they can be prepared and confident enough to dress up for their interviews.”

How to Get Started

Be a good neighbor. Look for—or create—volunteer opportunities in your local community to share resources, encourage your neighbors in their employment pursuits, and provide services to those in need. Supporting job fairs, teaching legal education courses, and offering free consultations are all good ways to get involved.

Tactic #2: Encourage the Next Generation of Legal Professionals

To ensure this conscientious culture moving forward, supporting a diverse pipeline of aspiring legal professionals is also crucial—and that’s an area notoriously in need of improvement in this space.

“The Association of American Law Schools just completed a first-ever study looking at college students and first-year law students to ask whether they're considering law school and what they're thinking about,” Wendy Collins Perdue, dean and professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law, told the audience.

“The good news is that three of the top four reasons students gave for attending law school cover having a positive impact on their communities (public service, serving others, and so on). Among fist-year law students,” Wendy went on, “more than half said they first thought about law school in high school or earlier. That's interesting and may suggest opportunities for outreach to have an impact on those early pipelines.”

But other news was more concerning: “Nationwide, among adults age 45-65, 12 percent have an advanced degree. Fifty percent of people considering law school have a parent with an advanced degree. Only 20 percent of students whose parents didn't go to college are considering going to law school,” Wendy said.

Her concluding takeaway from the research was frustrating. “By 2040 we will be a majority minority nation, and students currently in law school will be the leaders in the profession then—but the demographics don't reflect the country we're going to be by then,” she said. “That's a challenge. Law is the least diverse of the professions, so we have a lot of work to do.”

How to Get Started

Talk to your kids, their friends, and your neighbors about legal career paths; volunteer to be a mentor or career coach via your alma mater; flex your networking muscles to help those looking to make a career change see the potential in the legal field.

Tactic #3: Nurture the Human Element

When audience members asked whether technology could be a boon for access to justice in the decades ahead, all of the panelists seemed to share a similar sentiment: yes, but it won’t be enough.

“The human part matters,” Wendy reminded attendees. “With all the technology, don't lose track of that human part—whether you’re a licensed lawyer or simply someone who can help a person in trouble. The empathy and connection is what computers can't do, and that matters enormously. Everyone can make a difference.”

An increasingly connected generation could be the key to striking that balance between a tech-forward and compassionate legal culture in the years ahead.

“I'm big on millennials—and I think they can really be partners in this effort,” Justice Tanya Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice of New York State, New York County, said. “They see themselves as global citizens—they are committed to a cause. So perhaps it's them who can speak to their parents, grandparents, and so on, to talk about the issues and encourage them to get involved. Just a thought.”

How to Get Started

Be an evangelist for the issue of access to justice. You can spark something in your colleagues by inviting them to a charitable event, sharing your volunteer experience, or even discussing a good book or notable expert on the subject. Conversation is key to nurturing human relationships, so don’t be afraid to spark one.

How does your team help close the access to justice gap in your community? Share your stories on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn using #ClosingTheJusticeGap to discuss ideas for a brighter future with your peers.

Learn About Barriers Blocking Access to Justice

Sam Bock is a member of the marketing team at Relativity, and serves as editor of The Relativity Blog.