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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How law schools can build a pipeline of 21st century attorneys poised to address the access gap

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

What can law schools do to better ready law students to address the access to justice gap that challenges so many Americans?

Approximately 80% of low-income individuals cannot afford civil legal services, and the middle class can only afford to pay for just 40% to 60% of their legal needs.

This access-to-justice (ATJ) gap has remained stubbornly consistent over the last few years and law schools have a significant role to play to address the problem, says Joe Regalia, a law professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and co-founder of Regalia’s company helps legal professionals to become better legal writers and offers its tools at no cost to law students.

Thomson Reuters Institute sat down with Regalia and Amanda Brown, a legal innovation and technology expert and founder of Lagniappe Law Lab (LLL), to discuss how law schools are well-position to help address the ATJ gap, while also preparing the next generation of lawyers to innovate with the mindsets and tools to serve those individuals who cannot afford legal services.

Amanda Brown

The “low-hanging fruit” in law schools’ role, Regalia says, is combining the talent of their law students and technology at scale to increase accessibility to legal services for self-represented litigants (SRL). “Because law schools are in the business of training lawyers, and law professors have an enormous influence over law students and how they view their first job as attorneys, we can equip these students with the technology and innovation tools to scale ATJ tools,” Regalia explains. For example, law students can use technology tools to create simple document forms that can guide SRLs through filling out a motion for a civil legal need.

Moreover, students learning these skills and having these key experiences in law school:

      • will have the skills they need to continue serving those who cannot afford legal services on their own or through legal aid;
      • will be able to bring these transformations of legal services to public institutions in which they work; or
      • can demonstrate legal innovation and technology competencies to better drive efficiency in workflow at legal employers.

Indeed, expanding law school graduates’ innovation mindset and skill sets around technology will enable them to analyze how to perform legal services differently, teach them how to adjust their approach, and how to apply their skills in a fluid environment. All of which increases their scalability to adapt the delivery of legal services to meet ever-changing client needs now and in the future, Regalia adds.

Brown agrees, noting that the need is great. “Research continues to show that the one-to-one model of legal services continues to leave millions of Americans’ legal needs unaddressed,” she says. “Investing in legal innovation and technology education is the only chance we have to disrupt that model and shrink the access to justice gap.”

law school
Joe Regalia

Fortunately, more law schools are establishing essential requirements for legal technology and innovation programs, Regalia observes, some of which include:

Client-focused solutions — Giving law students experience in analyzing processes by thinking about the end-in-mind helps to create client-centered solutions. For example, Regalia says he started one nonprofit to empower homeless individuals to be able to successfully navigate the justice system as a SRL in a civil dispute. The first step he had to understand was the challenges that homeless individuals faced as legal services consumers and analyze the problem through their eyes. One key challenge homeless individuals experienced was not knowing their rights in a dispute. As they work through the legal system, procedural roadblocks arose because they lacked the understanding of what document should be filed. Employing innovation frameworks into existing processes enables developers to create client-focused solutions while helping law students develop the mindset and mental agility to adapt.

Understanding how tech works — Law schools need to teach these frameworks to better understand how technology tools work rather than simply teaching how to use specific tech tools.

Teamwork across disciplines — Law students need to learn how to collaborate with individuals with different domain expertise (including technical expertise) to better assist in creating a viable solution to a client issue. “A lot of these solutions work best if you get law students working with individuals in other disciplines who have different skill sets, like tech developers, computer scientists, and those from other disciplines to think about the business side of how we run teams,” Regalia says. “Law schools often sit in the best place to bring those stakeholders together.”

Being exposed to technology, collaborating with individuals of varying areas of expertise, and envisioning end-user focused solutions can open up career options after law school. For example, Brown says she started in legal technology and innovation as soon as she graduated from law school and now runs her own company, which “facilitates ATJ at scale through the use of technology, human-centered design, and operations principles.”

Her interest was first piqued as a student practitioner at the community justice and litigation technology clinics, Brown notes. Upon graduation, she fine-tuned her skills and impact as an ABA innovation fellow in 2018 before establishing LLL in 2019. “In my short time since law school, the work I’ve done has impacted tens of thousands of Louisianans,” Brown explains. “Impact on this scale is simply not possible under traditional models of legal service delivery, so while sometimes difficult, this has been an extremely rewarding path.”