The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. This has major implications for how justice is defined. The rich can afford big law firm prices, while the poor can qualify for free or subsidized legal services. But what about those left in the middle between these two extremes?
The average American makes $25.09 per hour as of August 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. In stark contrast, a lawyer with 1 to 3 years of experience charges a whopping $255 per hour based on the U.S. Attorney's Office Matrix for 2014-2015. In other words, a normal American would need to work a long 10-hour day to afford just one hour of legal services from a lawyer.
With the rise of legal tech startups, technology may play a role in empowering people to close the justice gap themselves, providing cheaper alternatives to hefty lawyer fees. Web-based legal platforms are also radically reshaping how people view and implement justice in their daily lives.
First, what is the justice gap?
Conversations about the "justice gap" depict the wealth disparity between those who lack access to basic services and those who can easily afford expensive legal fees. Eighty percent of low income people face difficulties securing legal help or accessing our nation's civil court system. Legal aid clinics, however, usually serve only those who meet certain federal low income requirements, like an annual income of $48,500 for a family of four.
On the other end of the gap, if you want the help of a more senior attorney, you can expect to pay over $12 per minute for a large law firm partner who bills at an average $727 hourly rate. In practice, only multi-million dollar companies can afford to pay these expensive rates for sophisticated deals and complex litigation.
For both of these extremes, technology is not necessarily playing a role to alleviate their needs. The reality is that technology and web-based services will many times not serve the poor who often lack access to the internet. A "quarter of poor households do not use the internet at all," according to an Economist article, "It's Expensive to be Poor." Sadly, for these households, smartphones are not commonplace, and phone apps targeted at making legal services will be underutilized by those who need it most.
For high-profile companies, executives are not resorting to technology and web-based services to lower their rising monthly bills for outsourced legal services. Instead, about 58% of larger corporations are keeping legal work for their in-house staff attorneys who are often cheaper and more efficient.
Can technology help the middle class access legal services?
Technology can offer a number of money-saving solutions for all those in the middle, from lower income families above the federal poverty line to cash-strapped businesses. Legal tech startups are creating solutions that help them reduce legal fees. Instead of going to an attorney to prepare a residential lease agreement, people now have the ability to go online and download a customized legal template for free.
Americans can even easily compare prices and find legal professionals at rates they can afford. Virtual law firms are cutting out high overhead costs associated with traditional brick and mortar legal establishments by connecting clients directly with attorneys who can work remotely on flexible schedules.
Furthermore, by providing access to knowledge, technology can help people understand the many facets of a complex situation and solve or prevent their own legal problems. Internet based legal platforms provide a forum for people to educate themselves and move beyond the underlying assumption that only lawyers can learn about the law.
Today, Nolo and other web-based platforms like Legal Templates empower consumers to educate themselves about the law. Learning about simple transactional documents like nondisclosure agreements are an opportunity to have a much needed conversation about expectations and responsibilities that could prevent future legal battles. Instead of relying on a third-party attorney or judge, two normal Americans can learn to ask each other the right questions and craft their own legal forms with a little technical help.
Reshaping our understanding of justice
Although a gap in access to legal services does exist, it is also important to understand that access to legal services is not the same as access to justice. Instead of seeing justice as a commodity to be purchased and relying on an adversarial court process, we are seeing how technology and education can reshape the way in which Americans conceptualize justice and help them to enact it in their own lives without resorting to the help of a third party.
The current practice of law is paternalistic and akin to two children—a plaintiff and defendant—turning to a parent or judge for a solution. For example, at an individual level, when one person injures someone or breaks the law, the injured person can turn to our court system to ask for money damages in the civil court system as a way of "punishing" the person who caused the injury or violated the law.
These fact-intensive investigations and drawn-out lawsuits have led Americans to aptly earn the title of being a litigious society. Lawyers have often been called "hired guns," an allusion to the underlying assumption that justice is a commodity that can be purchased at the right price. Even large corporations embroiled in lengthy discovery battles know that the company with the deeper pockets usually wins by surviving the legal bills. In 2008, the average cost of litigation for a company was nearly $115 million.
If justice is redefined as an individual capacity that can be strengthened, perhaps more people would ask themselves the hard questions, acknowledge their own mistakes, and generate solutions that would bring them more closure than fighting it out in the courtroom. As we learn to see with our own eyes, perhaps there will be more glimmerings of a growing individual and collective capacity to be fair-minded and cooperative. As legal tech startups continue to disrupt the traditional legal market, technology can also reframe our prevailing understanding of justice as a commodity that can be purchased by only a few to an inherent quality that can be developed by all.
Naree Chan is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Colorado Law School. She has an inside perspective of the legal and administrative process of the court system after serving as a judicial intern for a Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court and a federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Naree is admitted to practice law in the State of Massachusetts and State of Colorado. She also serves as a legal consultant to Legal Templates LLC
Suggested citation: Naree Chan, Can Technology Help the Middle Class Close the Justice Gap?, JURIST - Professional Commentary, Dec. 12, 2015, http://jurist.org/professional/2015/12/naree-chan-justice-gap.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Alix Ware, an assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org