Tuesday 20 June 2017

Innovation in Access to Legal Services for the Middle Class and Poor: The Great Untapped Market?

One of the pressing problems in the United States has been access to legal services, particularly to the poor and the middle class.  For sure, the wealthy have access to lawyers, but the poor and middle class apparently struggle.  Indeed, the Legal Services Corp. recently released a report titled, “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Legal Needs of Low Income Americans.”  The Legal Services Corp. teamed up with the University of Chicago to collect data concerning the gap and made some (perhaps unsurprising) findings.  The most important finding: “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.”  Moreover, “71% of households with veterans or other military personnel have experienced a civil legal problem in the past year.” And, “more than 60 million Americans have family incomes 125% below the Federal Poverty Line,” including 1.7 million veterans.  In Seniors' households, “56% had at least one civil legal problem in the last year.” 

In a recent press release, the Brigham Young University Law School has announced a program to address some of these problems called, “Law X”:

LawX will tackle some of the most challenging issues facing our legal system today,” said Gordon Smith, Dean of BYU Law School. “Some gaps in legal services may not be attractive targets for innovation by small, private startups or larger profit-oriented businesses, but closing these gaps would make a tremendous difference to many people who feel priced out of the market for legal services. A legal design lab embedded within a law school is an ideal platform for addressing these issues. LawX will use design thinking to address these problems, and when appropriate, to create products to solve them.”

LawX was conceived by Dean Smith and Kimball D. Parker. Parker, who developed and founded
CO/COUNSEL, a legal education and crowdsourcing website, will teach the corresponding course, debuting in the fall for second- and third-year BYU Law students. With the ambitious goal to solve one legal challenge a semester, the course will be structured as a design-thinking process, in which students will have fast-paced deadlines and responsibilities that are much like being in a startup. The course will be an immersive, hands-on experience by law students in collaboration with students and professors in other departments at BYU.
Interestingly, Tech Transfer Central reports that a University of Michigan Law School start-up, Court Innovations, has received $1.8 million in funding to commercialize a software program.  The program lets people who are working, have to care for children or are concerned with getting in trouble with immigration enforcers to make appearances and resolve problems in court “remotely.”  [Hat tip to Professor Paul Caron’s Tax Prof blog for leads to the Legal Services Corp. report and the Law X press release.]

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