Delivering Access to Justice

My 16-year-old daughter will tell you I’m not a “real” lawyer. It is true that I have not seen the inside of a courtroom in many years (except for pro bono cases; more about that later). Nevertheless, I use my legal training every single day. I am the executive director of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission.  The EATJC is a commission of the North Carolina Supreme Court chaired by the chief justice. Our mission is to expand access to the civil justice system for people of low income and modest means in North Carolina. Among the purposes of the commission are unmet legal needs assessments, statewide strategic planning, coordination of efforts between the legal aid organizations and other legal and non-legal organizations, legislative and other public policy initiatives, and resource development.

My legal training allows me to develop a strategic approach to solving problems and fulfill the goals and purposes of the EATJC. Because of my law school education, I can analyze a problem, break down solutions into their component parts, anticipate potential negative issues, and persuade others to adopt my proposal. I mediate differences and research alternatives. I draft policies, resolutions, and reports for use by lawyers, judges, and legislators.

Administration of Law Issues

Among the issues that the EATJC works on is the administration of law, which can occur in many settings. I research case law and ethics opinions to determine what is both permissible and advisable as we propose policy to regulatory bodies, such as the North Carolina State Bar, to increase access to justice. I research and draft legislative bills for consideration by the general assembly. I work with the judicial branch to establish best practices, educate judges and judicial branch employees, and promote fairness for self-represented litigants while adhering to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

My staff and I are often called upon to review court system processes and make recommendations for improvement. This may include accessibility for low-income or English-as-a-second-language litigants, or best practices for the disposition of cases. For example, North Carolina has a number of specialty courts, including veterans treatment courts. I will survey current operations by comparing the experiences of other specialty courts in North Carolina or other veterans courts around the country and identify opportunities for improvement.

I also serve on bar association task forces that seek to improve the administration of justice. The recent North Carolina Bar Association Internet & Regulations Task Force (IRTF) was established to study the internet practice of law and its regulation in the wake of the enactment of legislation that broadened consumer access to online legal services, the “Legal Zoom Bill.” The principal focus of the IRTF was to examine this form of practice and the related regulation’s impact on consumers and lawyers. I served on the subcommittee which studied how the delivery of legal services via the Internet could help bridge the justice gap for North Carolinians of low income and modest means when organizations like Legal Aid cannot assist. The group recommended that the NCBA participate in the ABA Free Legal Answers Program, a virtual legal advice clinic. The program has existed since 2010 and allows qualifying users to post a legal question on a website, which is then answered by pro bono attorneys.

The EATJC has recently worked with stakeholders to determine how expungements are handled in each jurisdiction, and recommend how to standardize this process. The EATJC issued a resolution in support of expungement reform to help persuade the general assembly to adopt proposed legislation.

Policy Work to Improve the Legal Profession

As noted above, a great deal of my daily agenda is policy work. Sometimes these are policy considerations for external systems and sometimes they are internal to the legal profession. My legal background gives me the knowledge and training to address the legal profession and to advocate for changes.

Several years ago, the North Carolina State Bar was again considering the adoption of Model Rule 6.1. I worked with a committee to tailor the model rule for the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct. Such work requires an understanding of the history of the Rules of Professional Conduct, background on the process of rule adoption and amendment, and knowledge of the legal profession’s approach to ethics and pro bono service. The EATJC has also weighed in on IOLTA policies, including mandatory IOLTA participation.

Working With Others in the Legal Profession

My legal background is particularly helpful as I work with others in the legal profession to increase access to our justice system. The EATJC works with legal aid providers and the private bar to increase pro bono participation and resource development for legal aid organizations. When raising money for legal aid, I can speak to other lawyers as a peer. I use my legal training to develop pro bono projects and policies to encourage more attorneys to provide pro bono service.

Finally, I demonstrate my personal commitment to pro bono by participating in pro bono service through the use of a rule that I helped promulgate in North Carolina that allows licensed out-of-state attorneys to provide pro bono assistance under the supervision of a legal aid attorney.

I can speak to attorneys about my pro bono experiences and how this representation has enhanced my legal skills, and allows me to be in court to represent those who would otherwise be without an attorney. Not only do I get to give back, but I am a better legal professional by providing direct representation to clients through pro bono service.

One does not have to be a litigator or draft contracts to be a “real” lawyer. There are any number of ways to use one’s legal education and training in a variety of work settings to make meaningful contributions. And, one can always provide pro bono service to continue to develop and refine additional legal skills.

About the Author

Jennifer Lechner is the executive director of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, a position she has held since 2008. Contact Jennifer on Twitter @jenniferlechner.

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