The Business of Access to Justice

It’s easy to think we have only two tracks: the big money and midnight oil of the corporate firm or the small dollars and altruism of the public interest world. In one, we’ll find new suits, mergers and acquisitions, and perhaps a shot at the corner office; in the other, sandals, civil rights litigation, and an endless grovel for cash. For the lifeblood of public interest, we’ve learned, is donations, grants, fellowships and whatever else we can scare up to keep on running.

But that distinction doesn’t always hold. Take Heisler, Feldman, McCormick & Garrow, a small but profitable plaintiffs’ side law firm in eastern Massachusetts. By focusing on claims that fall under fee-shifting statutes, the firm earns plenty without charging its clients a cent. Heisler and other startups are proving that expanding access to justice to even very low-income people does not require charity – instead, it requires a clever mind and an entrepreneur’s spirit.

Fee-shifting is only the beginning. Legal fees are astronomically high – far above what even most middle-income people can afford. More and more people are in court unrepresented because they have no other options. These low- and middle- income litigants are a nightmare for judges, but for lawyers, they’re an opportunity: a treasure trove waits for the person who can devise a cheap but effective way to provide legal services at scale.

Design software to walk unrepresented litigants through document preparation and license it to self-help centers coast-to-coast. Hire droves of low-cost Legal Technicians in Washington State to offer one-on-one assistance at a fraction of an attorney’s hourly rate. Create a comprehensive legal insurance scheme, calibrate your firm to the scheme’s benefits, and sell it to unions and employers.

Few deny that the legal profession is stodgy and behind the times, yet we continue to subsidize it with our talent rather than put it out of business with our ingenuity.

In access to justice, the future is not in charity, but in making money while doing good. The demand for original ideas, the opportunities for expansion and the rewards for getting it right are much more exciting than the “business” of the big-firm gentry. For marketeers with a bent for the inventive, access to justice could be the best game in town.

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