It’s no surprise that the legal system is dealing with a few crises at the moment. But that doesn’t mean Ilene Seidman, associate dean for academic affairs and clinical law professor at Suffolk University isn’t flummoxed by it.
“There’s millions of people in this country who need representation,” said Seidman on the justice gap, or the gap between those who need legal aid and those who can get it. “There’s a crisis in our country. Between 70 and 90 percent of people in various civil matters are unrepresented, depending on who you ask. Yet you have all these people graduating from law school who ‘there are no jobs for’…it seems truly insane to me.”
That’s why she helped start the Accelerator-to-Practice program at Suffolk.
The goal of the program from the start was to create lawyers who were more prepared for “the practice of today and tomorrow, not the practice of yesterday.” That means lawyers who were prepared to practice in the setting that Seidman says most lawyers practice in the private sector—small and solo practices—while also creating a business model where graduates could earn a living and do good legal work in their communities.
“They like to work in communities where they can play a role that is positive, and we try to give them a path that could make that happen,” said Seidman.
In her mind that meant charging head first into two of the most awkward areas for lawyers to navigate: legal aid and new technology.
The New Frontier
Accelerator’s operating principle is that by teaching lawyers to embrace technology and learn fundamental business practices from the get-go, they’d be more equipped to manage practices themselves—and allow for a greater quantity of cases. That quantity could be part of the answer to how a firm could support itself by helping low and average income people. And that prognostic thinking has been exactly what many argue the profession of law needs.
“Most firms are just focused on the income, but at someplace like the Accelerator, or a firm modeled on the same principles, it’s about creating legal access to justice on the field generally,” said Gerald Glover III, who graduated from the program last year and now works at Exari. “It’s not just about making money, but the impact and responsibility as an attorney to provide access to the courthouse…the billable hour has effectively become a hinderance. We need more efficiency, and that means implementing technology, like automating certain forms…that can save me 20 hours of paralegal work.”
With Accelerator, that change comes from the law students themselves. As a fee-generating law firm within the law school, students get hands-on experience in everything from handling cases to building their own automated forms. Glover himself created a smart document where consumers could see if lawyers would be able to provide an answer to whether they could seal their criminal record. In doing so, Glover thinks it can help make the criminal justice system more accessible to those who aren’t a middle age white man.
“At Accelerator you don’t just say ‘What do you think about this?’ We have a lot of those conversations too, but we’re also doing those things. We explore time management software, billing software, the dynamics of small firms versus big firms, how we would market ourselves, and then we market ourselves,” said Glover. “We have the extra—and incredible—responsibility of the ownership of the whole process, from client outreach to management of the firm.”
That responsibility is important to Seidman, who believes law schools owe it to their graduates to be teaching these tools while they’re still students. After all, what better way to train lawyers who can hit the ground running in their post-graduate careers than by getting them that experience before they get their diploma? In Seidman and Glover’s minds, that’s just not something that’s offered as much as it should be.
The New Access Model
Especially with the justice gap presenting an increasingly significant problem. Ask anyone who’s seen a “Law and Order” episode and they’ll tell you that “if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed to you”—but that’ in criminal cases. In the more common and standard cases in civil court, lawyers don’t come with the deal, and may not come cheap. As such, the number of people representing themselves in court has soared since the economy soured.
Although those day-to-day access cases may seem mundane to many lawyers, and often deal with lower opportunities for maximizing profits, Seidman notes that they can be some of the most important cases of their client’s lives.
“On the civil side of the law there’s a lot at stake, particularly for average income people in legal problems of everyday life—mortgage crisis, people losing homes, employment discrimination, family law matters, and so on—average income people often run up against the civil side of the law, and cannot afford representation,” said Seidman. “A lawyer that says ‘I’m going to charge you x amount per hour, whatever needs to be done’ is really not going to be the prevailing method of representation for low and average income people. For [those people] the delivery models are going to be different.”
The New Toolkit
Which means the toolset of the average lawyer needs to be different. In order to equip these lawyers, the Accelerator program covers everything from the business of law (How can you ethically market a practice? How do you put a value on your own services?) to the booming technological side of law (“Lawyering in the Age of Smart Machines” and “Process Improvement and Legal Project Management” were just two of the classes Glover remembers taking). Seidman noIt’s a strategy a lot of law schools are taking, but not many are turning into immersive school experiences. As Seidman sees it one course is good, a whole program is a lot better.
And that change means people up and down the chain are learning.
“I was very intimidated as a professor; we’re used to having mastery of our subject. But I always liken this to how 100 years ago medical professors thought about the introduction to radiology: ‘If I can feel it I can see where the break is!’ Maybe, but you can be a lot more efficient by getting an actual photograph of it,” said Seidman. “If I, as a person who went to Woodstock, can learn to use and in some sense do the creation of [legal technology] myself, anyone can.”
In the end that’s what Accelerator is doing: Bridging the justice gap with a new type of law grad. And it seems to be working.
“‘Going forward how will you be sustainable?’ That’s not something you have to worry about in another clinic; the administration figures that out for you. But [at the Accelerator] they made us adults. They really treated us like professionals, which was incredible,” said Glover, who believes that it’s only a matter of time before the skills he picked up in Accelerator become a priority for clients at any income level.
“It’s not just being efficient for the sake of being efficient and charging more money; it’s not enough anymore to say ‘I didn’t know I could do this,’ and take 40 hours instead of 10…If this attorney doesn’t do it they’re going to go to the guy down the street. Learning these tools are just the inevitable and responsible thing to do.”