The rising cost of legal services, relative to average incomes, is forcing the profession to confront an alarming affordability crisis—more and more Americans who don’t qualify for traditional legal aid programs are nevertheless finding it impossible to afford legal assistance in cases where they urgently need it. And even for families who do qualify for traditional assistance, legal aid budgets are so thin that they can only help in a dwindling fraction of cases.
This phenomenon is known as the “access to justice gap,” and lawyers are expected to help bridge much of it by offering pro bono legal services. Surveys suggest that most lawyers are keen on doing their part, but they face significant obstacles.
One major obstacle is the time-consuming headache of matching suitable attorneys to the clients in need of assistance.
A new initiative launched by the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission (SCATJ) seeks to remove some of those bottlenecks by automating the process of connecting clients and providers, much as companies like Uber and Airbnb have done in other industries. The hope is that by making it easier to offer pro bono services, attorneys will be able to provide more of them.
“We started with several premises about pro bono work,” said Justice John Few, chair of the SCATJ. “The first premise is that lawyers would not accept the assignment of cases. Lawyers have to agree on a case-by-case basis in order to make a pro bono system work. The other premise is that the administrative burden of connecting lawyers who are willing to do the work to clients who meet the qualifications for pro bono work is just massive.”
Any effort to scale up a pro bono program to into something more than a Band-Aid for the overall problem would require dozens of administrators working to make the connections between the lawyers and the clients, Few said. The commission sought to get around that problem by outsourcing that work to a digital marketplace. After more than a year of effort, it has created a new software program that has been running live, albeit in a very controlled environment, since February.
Like Uber, but for pro bono
The program, which is currently being managed by the Greenville County Bar, has yet to receive a name but is accessible online at scprobono.org. Lawyers who set up accounts start by taking a few minutes to establish their preferences—the sorts of cases they’re interested in accepting, the counties in which they’re willing to serve, and their level of expertise in the practice areas selected. The software then uses an algorithm to find cases that match those criteria, which are then placed in a dashboard created for the attorney.
Those cases come from an intake function handled by South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS), which is giving the SCATJ cases that it lacks the resources to handle. A lawyer can look over the generated cases, and if one looks appealing, the attorney can ask to be assigned the case. At that point the system generates an email to the client instructing him or her to call the attorney. If, after a consultation, the client and the attorney both agree to the representation, the case is then assigned to the lawyer.
The system still requires some human administration, but the software is able to do most of the work. Administrators set up a dummy account for Lawyers Weekly to explore its capabilities. After a few minutes of setting up preferences, the algorithm generated a list of bankruptcy/debtor relief cases in which clients were in need of legal assistance.
“It actually operates very simply for lawyer,” Few said. “That’s our goal, to give a hard-working busy lawyer who has all these demands on his or her time, but who wants to give back in the form of pro bono work, a comfortable and convenient way of find a case that suits them.”
Few said that to the best of his knowledge, this is the first time that anyone has ever tried to write a piece of software that does what this program does. The cost of the program was paid for by a grant from the South Carolina Bar Foundation.
Mind the gap
The need for such services is great. The state bar’s pro bono program currently handles about 300 cases a year, whereas South Carolina has 1.6 million people who make 200 percent or less of the federal level, which is the cutoff for receiving pro bono services, Few said. (And even for residents making more than that figure, legal services can still be prohibitively expensive.) Organizations trying to scale up to meet that need have been stymied by the administrative burdens.
Matthew Richardson of Wyche, a member and former chair of the commission, said that using humans to make connections between clients and attorneys is inefficient, and that the program was designed to remove that bottleneck. One area where humans at least for now remain indispensable, however, is in identifying the potential clients who need the attorneys and qualify for pro bono services. To that end, he said, SCLS is a crucial partner in the process.
“This program is meant to increase the capacity of legal services for those who need it,” Richardson said. “SCLS does a great job as that frontline law firm, but they don’t have enough resources to cover the spectrum … without that part of it, it’s hard to go out in the community and help people understand that they have a legal problem for which they need legal assistance.”
Richardson said that attorneys he had spoken to who have used the program have spoken highly of it, and the program has reached the point where administrators are just about ready to adopt it on a broader geographic scale. With the technical aspects of the program running smoothly, their focus will have to expand to address some of the non-technical challenges of the access to justice gap as well.
“We’re working now to try to generate a revised thought process that lawyers would have about pro bono work so that this becomes a priority for members of the bar,” Few said.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan