Earlier this year, the American Bar Association produced A Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States. This report has generated much discussion with varying viewpoints about whether the report went too far or not far enough in its 12 recommendations to continue building on the legal profession’s legacy and ensure access to justice.

The foreword of the report states, “The American public deserves accessible and affordable legal services, and the legal profession has a special obligation to advance this goal…The commission also studied traditional and evolving delivery models for legal services, scrutinized the strengths and weaknesses of the profession and justice system that impact the delivery of legal services, and developed recommendations for ensuring that the next generation of legal services more effectively meets the public’s needs.”

A panel at the 21st annual Thomson Reuters Law Firm Leaders Forum provided comment about the report from a wide swath of individuals with vast legal experience and strong views on ensuring access to justice for everyone. Ralph Baxter, author, advisor and chairman of the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, opened the session noting that the legal profession is at an inflection point and without substantial change, there are no assurances that the justice system can and will serve everyone, noting that “legal services are out of reach for most Americans.”

William Hubbard, immediate past president of the ABA and partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, focused on what he called a deep structural gap in the legal system. He said that was the catalyst for the report and legal professionals must be the stakeholders in the reforming of the justice system to ensure access to legal services.

During creation of the report, the goal of the commission was to listen, especially through a consumer lens, said Judy Perry Martinez, chair, ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services. That lens included conversations throughout the country with people across multiple income levels, varying legal service needs and more. Martinez noted that consumers see the justice system as overly complex and containing hurdles that may seem insurmountable – in both civil and criminal arenas.

Additional members of the panel included: Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice, The United States Department of Justice; Edward Hartman, co-founder and chief product officer, LegalZoom; Glenn Lau-Kee, former president, The New York State Bar Association; the Honorable Mark D. Martin, chief justice, The Supreme Court of the State of North Carolina; and James J. Sandman, president, Legal Services Corporation.

Each panel member spoke and the resounding theme centered around access to justice and the varying views from the profession, whether concerning legal aid, leveraging technology or what some may view as the unauthorized practice of law. Each spoke to the importance of the report, commending the ABA and even challenging them to continue to do more.

The report includes 12 recommendations that, “Through bold action and innovation, universal access to meaningful assistance for essential legal needs is within our collective reach.”

  1. The legal profession should support the goal of providing some form of effective assistance for essential civil legal needs to all persons otherwise unable to afford a lawyer
  2. Courts should consider regulatory innovations in the area of legal services delivery
  3. All members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies
  4. Individuals should have regular legal checkups, and the ABA should create guidelines for lawyers, bar associations, and others who develop and administer such checkups
  5. Courts should be accessible, user-centric, and welcoming to all litigants, while ensuring fairness, impartiality, and due process
  6. The ABA should establish a Center for Innovation
  7. The legal profession should partner with other disciplines and the public for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services
  8. The legal profession should adopt methods, policies, standards and practices to best advance diversity and inclusion
  9. The criminal justice system should be reformed
  10. Resources should be vastly expanded to support long-standing efforts that have proven successful in addressing the public’ unmet needs for legal services
  11. Outcomes derived from any established or new models for the delivery of legal services must be measured to evaluate effectiveness in fulfilling regulatory objectives
  12. The ABA and other bar associations should make the examination of the future of legal services part of their ongoing strategic long-range planning

The panel discussed the report at length, but due to the time constraints and multiple viewpoints, significant portions from the report was not touched upon. So panelists encouraged all stakeholders in the legal system to download and read the report, and start exploring how they can help advance access to justice.

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