Report on the future of

legal services

in the United States

Commission on the future of legal services logo

Foreword

The American public deserves accessible and affordable legal services, and the legal profession has a special obligation to advance this goal. From 2014 to 2016, the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services examined various reasons why meaningful access to legal services remains out of reach for too many Americans. The Commission also studied traditional and evolving delivery models for legal services, scrutinized the strengths and weaknesses of the profession and justice system that impact the delivery of legal services, and developed recommendations for ensuring that the next generation of legal services more effectively meets the public’s needs.

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Executive summary

In August 2014, the Commission on the Future of Legal Services set out to improve the delivery of, and access to, legal services in the United States. The Findings and Recommendations of the two-year undertaking are contained in this Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States and are a product of the Commission’s full membership including Commissioners, special advisors, liaisons, reporters, and ABA staff. This is a consensus document that was not authored by a single individual. Rather, the Report represents the expertise and input of the entire Commission, as informed by written comments supplied by the public and the profession, testimony at public hearings and meetings, grassroots events across the country, a national summit on innovation in legal services, webinars, and dozens of presentations on the Commission’s work at which the public’s input was sought. The Commission recognizes that portions of this Report may be viewed as controversial by some or not sufficiently bold by others, but the Commission believes that significant change is needed to serve the public’s legal needs in the 21st Century.

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Cover of report Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the ABA unless expressly noted therein.

Findings

Judy Perry Martinez, Chair, ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, introduces the Findings section
  • A. Despite sustained efforts to expand the public’s access to legal services, significant unmet needs persist.
    1. Most people living in poverty, and the majority of moderate-income individuals, do not receive the legal help they need.
    2. The public often does not obtain effective assistance with legal problems, either because of insufficient financial resources or a lack of knowledge about when legal problems exist that require resolution through legal representation.
    3. The vast number of unrepresented parties in court adversely impacts all litigants, including those who have representation.
    4. Many lawyers, especially recent law graduates, are un- or underemployed despite the significant unmet need for legal services.
    5. The traditional law practice business model constrains innovations that would provide greater access to, and enhance the delivery of, legal services.
    6. The legal profession’s resistance to change hinders additional innovations.
    7. Limited data has impeded efforts to identify and assess the most effective innovations in legal services delivery.
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Hon. Lora Livingston, Commission member, discusses report highlights
  • B. Advancements in technology and other innovations continue to change how legal services can be accessed and delivered.
    1. Courts, bar associations, law schools, and lawyers are experimenting with innovative methods to assist the public in meeting their needs for legal services.
    2. New providers of legal services are proliferating and creating additional choices for consumers and lawyers.
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Wallace Jefferson, Commission member, discusses report highlights
  • C. Public Trust and Confidence in Obtaining Justice and in Accessing Legal Services is Compromised by Bias, Discrimination, Complexity, and Lack of Resources.
    1. The legal profession does not yet reflect the diversity of the public, especially in positions of leadership and power.
    2. Bias–both conscious and unconscious–impedes fairness and justice in the legal system.
    3. The complexity of the justice system and the public’s lack of understanding about how it functions undermines the public’s trust and confidence.
    4. The criminal justice system is overwhelmed by mass incarceration and over–criminalization coupled with inadequate resources.
    5. Federal and state governments have not funded or supported the court system adequately, putting the rule of law at risk.
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Recommendations

Andrew Perlman, Vice-Chair, ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services, introduces the Recommendations section.
  • RECOMMENDATION 1: The legal profession should support the goal of providing some form of effective assistance for essential civil legal needs to all persons otherwise unable to afford a lawyer.
  • RECOMMENDATION 2: Courts should consider regulatory innovations in the area of legal services delivery.
    • 2.1 Courts should consider adopting the ABA Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services.
    • 2.2 Courts should examine and, if they deem appropriate and beneficial to providing greater access to competent legal services, adopt rules and procedures for judicially-authorized and-regulated legal services providers.
    • 2.3 States should explore how legal services are delivered by entities that employ new technologies and internet-based platforms and then assess the benefits and risks to the public associated with those services.
    • 2.4 Continued exploration of alternative business structures (ABS) will be useful, and where ABS is allowed, evidence and data regarding the risks and benefits associated with these entities should be developed and assessed.
  • RECOMMENDATION 3: All members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4: Individuals should have regular legal checkups, and the ABA should create guidelines for lawyers, bar associations, and others who develop and administer such checkups.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5: Courts should be accessible, user-centric, and welcoming to all litigants, while ensuring fairness, impartiality, and due process.
  • RECOMMENDATION 6: The ABA should establish a Center for Innovation.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7: The legal profession should partner with other disciplines and the public for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services.
  • RECOMMENDATION 8: The legal profession should adopt methods, policies, standards, and practices to best advance diversity and inclusion.
  • RECOMMENDATION 9: The criminal justice system should be reformed.
  • RECOMMENDATION 10: Resources should be vastly expanded to support long-standing efforts that have proven successful in addressing the public’s unmet needs for legal services.
  • RECOMMENDATION 11: Outcomes derived from any established or new models for the delivery of legal services must be measured to evaluate effectiveness in fulfilling regulatory objectives.
  • RECOMMENDATION 12: The ABA and other bar associations should make the examination of the future of legal services part of their ongoing strategic long-range planning.

Summit

National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services

Stanford University School of Law

May 2-4, 2015

A “National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services,” convened in partnership with Stanford Law School, challenged more than 200 thought leaders from within and beyond the legal profession to develop action plans to ensure access to justice for all.

Read more about the Summit Summit Storify
Video from Summit on Innovation in Legal Services

Highlights of the commission's work

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Webinars

View the Commission’s webinar series featuring experts on topics relevant to the work of the Commission.

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Grassroots meetings

Grassroots meetings and futures presentations were held across the country to facilitate discussions on the future of legal services and to surface innovations.

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Grassroots Meeting Toolkit
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Hearings

The Commission listened to and analyzed testimony at public hearings involving a range of stakeholders from the bar and beyond.

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Issues papers

The Commission released a series of issues papers to solicit feedback from a broad range of stakeholders.

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Policy resolutions

The ABA House of Delegates adopted the Commission’s policy resolution on Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services during its February 2016 meeting.

View the Resolution Report and Comments on Issues Paper