Access to Lawyers

Key Innovators

Rebecca Sandefur

Others Working on This

Charley Moore, Shantelle Argyle, Brooke Moore, Felicity Conrad, and Kristen Sonday


This is how the legal profession generally thinks about access to justice, with much of its energy going towards regulatory reform to create a class of limited-license legal technicians (LLLTs/legal technicians) or allow non-lawyers to share ownership of law firms. These experiments are in their early days, so it is impossible to say how much impact they will have on the access to justice gap.

But as long as the profession focuses on access to lawyers, the access-to-justice gap will never be closed.

Let’s look at just one section of the gap that illustrates the scale of the unmet need. In its most recent report on the justice gap, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, the Legal Services Corporation reported its grantees lack the resources to serve over half of the people who come to them.

More than half (53% to 70%) of the problems that low-income Americans bring to LSC grantees will receive limited legal help or no legal help at all because of a lack of resources to serve them.

The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans

In other words, LSC grantees (which make up a lot of free legal services in general) need to double or triple their capacity in order to meet the existing need. That’s not necessarily impossible, but it does seem like it would take a lot more money than LSC is likely to get any time soon.

Let’s look at this in another way that indicates lawyers may not even be that essential. Here is another statistic from Rebecca Sandefur‘s 2014 report, Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA:

In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city reported experiencing at least one of 12 different categories of civil justice situations in the previous 18 months.

Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean people who have a “civil justice situation” turn to lawyers for help. In fact, they rarely do. This part of Sandefur’s study is worth quoting at length because it is kind of mind-blowing if you are conditioned to think legal problem = lawyer.

Americans respond to their civil justice situations in a wide variety of ways, but this variety masks a powerful consistency: rarely do they turn to lawyers or courts for assistance. [Emphasis mine.]

Why didn’t people reach out further for assistance with in handling civil justice situations? Interestingly, cost plays a modest role in people’s accounts of why they do not do more to respond to the situations they face. Among people who had not gone to any kind of advisor outside of their own social network, the most common reason given was that they did not see the need (46% of the instances in which no advice was sought): either the problem had resolved or they expected it to resolve without getting advice, or they simply felt that they did not need advice. Another important reason for not seeking advice was believing that it would make no difference (offered as a reason 24% of the time). In 9% of instances where people did not or were not planning to seek advice, they explained that they did not know where to go or how to do so. Concerns about cost played a role in 17% of cases in which people did not or were not planning to turn to third parties, including lawyers, for assistance in handling civil justice situations.

Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA

If people rarely turn to lawyers for assistance—because they don’t want to—it doesn’t seem like increasing access to lawyers is likely to have much impact on access to justice generally. Some people think lawyers just need a PR blitz (Got Lawyers?) will fix this. I’m dubious.

There is definitely an unmet need for lawyers. But just as clearly, there is an even larger need that probably can’t be solved by lawyers.

Published on January 17th, 2021. Last updated on January 27th, 2021, by Sam Glover.