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Making Justice Accessible to Everyone

Sunday, Sep 30, 2012

Legal Trailblazer Gillian Hadfield Testifies Monday in New York

-By Gilien Silsby

Every year, thousands of people are denied access to justice for one simple reason - they can’t afford to hire an attorney.

The widespread problem won’t be solved by simply increasing funding for courts, lawyers and legal aid. Instead, the legal system’s regulatory approach needs to dramatically shift with less-expensive alternatives to attorneys, including non-lawyers providing legal assistance, according to USC Gould School of Law Prof. Gillian Hadfield, who is testifying on the matter Monday, Oct. 1 at the Chief Judge’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services in New York.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is conducting the public hearings to evaluate “the continuing unmet civil legal services needs” in New York and to assess the level of resources necessary to meet those needs.

“My main message for the Court is one rarely heard from the legal profession,” Hadfield said. “There is no way to generate the kind of legal help ordinary Americans need without fundamental change in the way the judiciary regulates the practice of law… We cannot possibly solve the access to justice problem without changes in our regulatory approach. This is something that the New York judiciary has complete authority to accomplish with the stroke of a pen, no trip to the General Fund required.”

Hadfield, known in many circles as a legal trailblazer, has long advocated training non-JD professionals to provide legal assistance to supplement the services of traditional JD-trained lawyers. In addition, she is a proponent of using low-cost services, such as LegalZoom (she sits on its Legal Advisory Council), which make legal assistance convenient, affordable and available to the general population.

In the future, she envisions legal kiosks - manned by variously-trained legal professionals - in places like Wal-Mart. She is closely watching the state of Washington, which recently authorized limited license non-lawyer assistance. She hopes this idea will spread throughout the country since each state has regulatory authority over the legal practice.

“People who face the ordinary need for legal help to figure out what to do about a financing agreement or a family crisis, a foreclosure or eviction, a tax or a small business problem just don’t have enough to pay the $200 an hour minimum it costs to hire a lawyer,” Hadfield said. “The crisis in access to justice in New York – and America - is about money.”

When people have access to lower-cost legal alternatives, they generally take advantage of the resources. For example, the United Kingdom trains lower-cost legal professionals as well as lawyers. Because of cheaper alternatives, less than 10 percent of the population ignores their legal issues.  Conversely, in the United States, studies show that often less than half take steps to deal with their legal problems.

“We need to act to create the legal equivalent of what we find in medicine—professionals who are trained to deal with standard and less complex problems.  We need the legal equivalent of nurse practitioners.”

Judge Lippman invited Hadfield to testify after hearing her speak on the topic at Harvard University and Yale University. "Professor Hadfield's work on the provision of legal assistance by non-lawyers is of great interest to us in New York as we pursue ways to close the justice gap between the need for civil legal services and the resources available to meet that need,” said Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.“I am delighted that she will be testifying at the hearings on civil legal services this fall about the ways in which non-lawyers can fill some of the need."

In addition to changing the way legal services are delivered for ordinary Americans, Hadfield is a proponent of spurring innovation in the corporate and commercial sectors of the legal profession. She recently published an essay in Miller-McCune, “Legal Services Wanted; Lawyers Need Not Apply,” which lays out why we need a legal infrastructure which facilitates higher rates of creative and innovative thinking about how to respond to a rapidly changing global environment.

She is part of a growing movement to reform legal education. Her mission is to teach law students to be problem solvers.

“Many law professors come to law school thinking that our job is to be the expert at the front of the class imparting information,” she said. “But one of the most important things we can do for our students is to get them actively engaged in problem-solving together to generate workable solutions to client problems. As I see it, my job as a professor is to design the materials and opportunities for them to do that and then to take myself out of center stage as much as possible.”
 

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