Justice innovations — chucking 20th Century models out the window

In the clamor about innovation in the legal profession, a singular idea is striking a chord.

Real innovation, some are saying, will not consist of new ways to perform the chores of 20th Century lawyering. Instead, real innovation will focus on new ways to solve people’s problems. Maybe not every legal problem requires a lawyer. Maybe not every question implicates the Magna Carta.

Outside the justice business, the great new companies of the 21st Century — Amazon, Apple, Uber — are chucking 20th Century models out the window. They are reinventing what they do and getting things done cheaper and faster than ever before.

For law, it’s different.

Society has gotten way more complex. Demands for law-based outcomes have exploded —especially in low-dollar personal contexts like healthcare, housing, domestic affairs, veterans rights, social security, disaster recovery, and consumer financial issues. But legal outcomes continue to be delivered for the most part in the same old ways.

All this weighs most heavily on people without a lot of money. They are the ones with all the domestic and housing and veterans issues. 80% of the people who need to use the justice system can’t afford it. They can’t afford the lawyers. And the ones who can afford lawyers aren’t happy about that. Too often, they get expensive, slow, lawyer-centered solutions. “There is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.

Innovations are coming, but before now they have focussed mostly on how lawyers work, and not so much on customer experiences.

In North Carolina though, some intimations of change are appearing. George Hausen says that Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) is North Carolina’s “laboratory of innovation” for the justice system and he claims some victories. He points to

  • LANC-fostered medical-legal partnerships,
  • LANC’s eviction diversion program,
  • LANC’S call center, self-help clinics, and videos,
  • LANC’S foreclosure prevention programs, and
  • partnerships between LANC and North Carolina’s members of Congress to ensure delivery of veterans benefits.

LANC catches problems aborning and finds solutions that bypass the legal system. They take lawyers out of the picture.

LANC receives high volumes of requests for services in low-dollar kerfuffles. It has developed expertise in subject matters that not many private lawyers can match such as personal housing issues, foreclosure prevention, consumer issues, veterans benefits, healthcare, domestic violence, natural disasters. LANC’s perspectives on the system (high-volume, low-dollar) are unique. Its solutions are innovative.

Government support and private philanthropy (institutional and personal) for LANC is a good investment in justice system innovation. LANC needs a lot more support than it gets.

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