Time for your Legal Check-Up? The Engagement Problem: Solving Problems Using Legal Tools, Online Legal Solutions, and Lawyers.
What is a Legal Solution?
A legal solution can be legal information, a legal form, a web advisor, a lawyer providing limited legal services, a lawyer providing full-service representation, or even a paralegal or legal document preparer who can help the consumer complete a set of forms.
It is well-documented that most consumers do not realize that many of the problems in their daily lives can be resolved by the application of a legal solution. The fact that many consumers do not recognize that they have a problem that can be resolved with a legal solution is called the “engagement deficit.”
Recent research sponsored by the American Bar Foundation thoroughly examines the scope of the engagement deficit for those of all incomes.
In Accessing Justice in the Contemporary USA: Findings from the Community Needs and Services Study, Professor Rebecca Sandefur details the scope and nature of justiciable issues that people confront. The research shows that people were most likely to address their problems themselves (46%), do nothing (16%), or get help from family or friends (16%). Only 15 percent sought formal help.
Of those who did not seek formal assistance, 46 percent thought there was no need for advice, while 23 percent did not believe it would have made a difference. Only one of six did not seek formal assistance because they thought it would cost too much.
While the research does not dive into the severity of the legal problems people confront and leaves open the question of how many would find value in turning to formal assistance, including a lawyer, it does demonstrate an enormous latent legal market, reflecting the limitations of current efforts to reach out to those with legal needs.
Most of the legal profession’s efforts to advance the delivery of legal services, including those in the private sector, legal aid, and pro bono, are focused on serving the needs of those who know they have a problem that has a legal solution – those who are seeking out legal assistance to address their problem. These efforts include the full array of referral services, advertisements, directories, websites, law libraries, and self-help centers.
The Latent Legal Market
A different set of strategies is required to reach those who have a problem but do not recognize that the problem has a legal solution. Even those who recognize they have a problem may not associate it with a legal solution. If we use a medical analogy, these would be the asymptomatic diseases that are discovered not by pain or a fever, but by lab results showing something out of the ordinary. This is part of what Richard Susskind refers to as the latent legal market and what is referred to in this context as the engagement deficit.
Graph 1 illustrates the engagement deficit with one axis that measures a person’s recognition of a problem and the other setting out that person’s recognition of a legal solution for the problem. The current structure of our outreach is one that speaks to those who are fully aware they have a problem that has a legal solution, those in the upper right-hand quadrant. These include those who have been served with an eviction or foreclosure notice, a subpoena for a court action to collect a debt, or a petition for dissolution of a marriage, custody, or visitation. These include people who are getting calls from debt collectors or have extraordinary medical debts. They include people who have overstayed their visas, have been in traffic accidents, or diagnosed with an illness that may require near-term estate planning. Our efforts to reach these people include lawyer referral services, advertisements, directories, online modalities, law libraries, and self-help centers, all of which are responsive to those who know they have a problem with a legal solution and seek out formal assistance.
Yet, Prof. Sandefur’s research demonstrates the limitations of all of these outreach methods.
Clearly, our efforts to reach out to those who are not aware they have problems with legal solutions, those on the left side of the grid, need to embrace a different set of strategies.
- Medical-Legal Partnerships are a good example of those who know they have a problem but may not be aware of a legal solution. For example, if a child has a respiratory infection, a doctor may believe the cause is environmental, such as mold in the family’s apartment. If this is discovered, a lawyer may then resolve the matter with the landlord through legal recourse.
- Similarly, people with prior criminal matters may have trouble getting employment. An expungement may be a legal solution of the problem of unemployment. Others, in the lower left quadrant, may not even know they have a problem, let alone a problem with a legal solution.
- For example, those who are starting a new business may incorporate without knowing about obligations for annual meetings and corporate record-keeping. The failure to comply with these requirements could result in personal financial responsibilities.
- A divorced parent may not be aware of dormant obligations or opportunities regarding a child’s college expenses that had been deferred during the divorce 15 years before.
- A start-up business may not be aware of the obligation to obtain protection for intellectual property associated with the new enterprise, leaving the company’s logo at risk.
- People may simply not be aware of the value of estate planning documents, such as powers of attorney and advance directives. These issues, and of course many others, may surface through the use of diagnostic tools but not otherwise be addressed.
The DirectLaw – LawPaths Service
The DirectLaw – LawPaths Service is designed to create online tools that will enable people to recognize when their problems have legal solutions and become aware of the resources, both public and private, that are available for them to effectively employ legal measures to resolve those problems.
We are starting off with simple tools, but are planning more sophisticated tools such as online Legal Check-Ups, Web-based diagnostic tools, and automated legal advice tools.
Stay tuned for future developments!