Improving Access to the Justice System

Law Practice Today introduces “New Law,” a column profiling innovators in the legal industry whose projects or ideas have already changed the way law is practiced and who continue to seek ways to improve the profession. These trailblazers will answer questions on topics that keep our readers awake at night as they plan how to develop their practices in a rapidly changing world. Our goal in spotlighting these thought leaders is to help our readers predict the future of law and become first adopters of visionary ideas and techniques that will set them apart from their competitors.

Nicolle Schippers is president of the Group Legal Services Association (GLSA), an affiliate of the American Bar Association. She was recently nominated to join the board of directors for the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and to become a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. Nicolle is corporate counsel at ARAG, a leader in legal insurance, is also a member of the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys, and on the board of directors for the Iowa Chapter of the ACC. She served five years in the Air Force as a judge advocate general (JAG) and is a published novelist, author, and speaker for continuing legal education programs.

What projects or ideas have you been focusing on recently? 

My passion is ensuring every American, regardless of income, has access to legal services. The United States currently ranks 65 out of 102 countries for overall accessibility and affordability of civil justice. According to The World Justice Project, 2015, other countries that tied for 65th include Pakistan, Turkey, Ecuador and Botswana. There is no reason that access to affordable legal services should be such a challenge in a country where there are more than one million licensed attorneys.

I’m working with the American Bar Association, state bar associations and law schools to help develop solutions to America’s access to justice problem. We are also working on educating Americans on existing options, such as legal insurance plans, that give them access to quality legal services at a price they can afford.

What could lawyers look at in a new way that would benefit their clients and society?

Clients are also consumers, and they expect attorneys and our services to be as accessible and flexible as other service providers. To attract and serve clients, we need to be open to trying new technology and delivery methods. Some attorneys are embracing online scheduling or providing online feedback tools so that clients can share their experiences. Others are offering clients the ability to pay via credit card using private portals online.

Many solo and small practice firms are also joining legal plan networks to serve more clients and streamline their billing and marketing processes. In this digital age, every other service provider has made changes to be more appealing to consumers—now the legal community needs to do the same.

What is one thing about the practice of law you would change if you could?

The system—and by that I mean how involved and time-consuming the process is (time in court, waiting for the court, time with the attorney, waiting for opposing parties, etc.) and the sometimes needless hours/paperwork it takes to get a legal issue resolved. I understand that large civil cases will take time, but it should not be so cumbersome, expensive, confusing and frustrating for people to get their legal issues resolved. Quite frankly, our current system makes it too hard for people to identify their legal issues and get access to help, and it discourages people from hiring an attorney and seeking the legal assistance so many of them need. It creates a lack of confidence in attorneys and in our courts.

What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

The fact that so many attorneys, leaders, state bar associations, judges and industry experts are coming together to talk about what the future of legal services needs to look like. I’m thrilled that we are looking outside the legal community as well, to gather information and ideas from subject matter experts in business and technology, along with legal industry influencers in other countries who have faced similar issues.

We are working together to develop ideas and solutions that will propel the legal profession forward and enable us to better handle customer needs and incorporate technological advancements. The creativity that industry leaders are showing — through incubator firms, new client-centric courses in law schools, the partnering of business and technology experts with attorneys to help them service today’s client — will propel the legal profession to where it needs to be.

What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?

In the next few years we will begin to think more about legal services the way we think about medical services: that they are services everyone should have access to, regardless of income, education, language and other factors. Legal insurance, like health insurance, gives consumers access to affordable legal services — in exchange for a monthly fee between $20 and $30, they have their costs covered for planned and unplanned legal events.

Technology will also have a tremendous impact on how we practice law in the future. We will see an increase in software and web-based solutions that allow consumers to connect with attorneys using their preferred methods of communication, such as text, email or video chat. More firms will adopt online tools for scheduling and reviewing documents.

What’s the best new law practice idea you have heard recently?

Low profit firms. They aren’t nonprofit organizations, but they are firms that have a passion for helping all people resolve their legal needs and are making their services accessible to consumers (and profitable for themselves) using fixed fee schedules. These firms have reduced their rates, streamlined their processes and incorporated efficiencies to help people for a fraction of the cost of other firms. Low profit firms are showing other firms that fixed fee schedules do work.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is the director of Infinite PR in San Francisco, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

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