Seems to be an outbreak of news about pro bono legal advice for people who can’t afford lawyers. Or people who can’t afford lawyers not wanting them anyway.
Above the Law blog describes below how pro se litigants (people who are handling their civil legal matters without a lawyer, i.e., by themselves) are clogging up the courts and how they’re doing their legal research on the internet. This is the legal equivalent of diagnosing your medical problems on WebMD. To me, a foolish idea.
Which inspires me to dig out the eternally applicable Alexander Pope quote from An Essay on Criticism (here’s the whole quatrain; I mean, why not?):
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
I know quite a lot about law. I would never, never conduct my own litigation–except for certain courts I’ve written extensively about in Sidebar.
The biggest thing I know about law and litigation is…I don’t know anything.
Here’s Above the Law on this subject. You’ll see some citations to sites where you can get legal advice. (One alarming quote: …62% of those surveyed tackle their civil justice issues either by themselves or with advice from friend and family. Only 15% turned to an advisor or representative. The internet is where these people are turning when helping themselves or consulting with friends and family.
My comment: OMG!!!!)
Studies have found that 63 million Americans qualify for Legal Services Corporation-funded civil legal assistance. These lower-income persons may have serious legal needs, and when they do they completely mess up the courts smooth operations. In a survey of trial judges, more than 60% of the judges reported that unrepresented litigants had errors in procedure. 78% of judges responded in the same survey that the rising number of pro se litigants have decreased the efficiency of the courts. In response, courts of every level are creating resources for pro se litigants. The National Center for State Courts lists indigent defense resources for 49 states and the District of Columbia. These resources are not be used only by the indigent, but by the public at large. People are researching legal information and answers to their own legal issues. In the report by Rebecca Sandefur, with the American Bar Association, on a how people approach legal issues, she found that 62% of those surveyed tackle their civil justice issues either by themselves or with advice from friend and family. Only 15% turned to an advisor or representative. The internet is where these people are turning when helping themselves or consulting with friends and family. You can see this happening on answer sites like Quora, where 114 thousand people subscribe to the Law category. They’re not all lawyers—only 8 thousand people follow the Attorney section. The consequence of this is that people are entering the legal system having already researched their problems through a variety of free resources. Some are put out by experts; others by less-than-experts. Every client walks through the door already believing they know the law. Of course, they lack context and experience to back up their web surfing, but this knowledge has led to two consequences for lawyers. First, more time has to be spent convincing clients on a course outside of their research. The second is that clients will not pay for legal research anymore. Firms are left with research costs that they cannot recover directly. Lexis-Nexis found that research costs can account for 5-10% of a firm’s expenses. In that same piece, 75% of corporate counsel stated that legal research conducted by outside firms was worth the costs. Yet, a Bloomberg Law survey found that firms were able to recoup about 50% of their online research costs. Clients are more likely to pay for photocopying charges than research costs. What’s a law firm to do? They need to take advantage of the same research options available to their clients. Firms should be including a research plan as part of their normal workflow. This plan should include vetting new knowledge bases, keeping subject matter knowledge fresh, and turning to low cost services that offer the same value as the big two legal research services. Some law firms are already making this jump. The American Bar Association’s 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report found that nearly 40% of lawyers are using Fastcase’s mobile app for free legal research. That’s compared to the less than 35% using Westlaw’s paid app. Only by vetting the same tools that clients are using for legal research can lawyers prepare for the questions that will walk in their door. Lawyers will be armed with knowledge on what these sites advise and where these sites lack expertise. Combine that knowledge with modern legal research tools, and firms will be able to show that their expertise extends beyond the surface scratched by their clients. Looking to create a modern, cost-effective legal research plan? Register for our free Advanced Legal Research webinar on May 28, where new legal research tools and techniques will be discussed alongside Ed Walters, CEO and Founder of Fastcase. Joshua Lenon is the Lawyer in Residence at Clio, an intuitive cloud-based legal practice management solution. An attorney admitted to the New York Bar, Joshua brings legal scholarship to the conversations happening both within Clio and with its customers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.