Technological advances and innovative thinking are the keys to equality of access to legal services, says the founding team behind Australian not-for-profit, Everyday Justice.
Solely funded by Mills Oakley, Everyday Justice provides free legal advice for the ‘missing middle’ – a term describing the growing number of low to moderate-income earners in Australia.
The challenges plaguing access to justice
Amy says that two of the big issues we face around access to justice include:
- There are too many law graduates struggling to find jobs.
- There is a whole group of people who can’t access legal services, due to a myriad of reasons.
“Surely we can marry the two up,” she says.
And she believes that technology and innovation are the answers to this challenge.
Gaining grad experience through community legal services
The legal industry has always been highly competitive for new graduates. A fact that has only worsened over the last 12 months, thanks to the global pandemic.
“Graduate programs are being pared back and workforces are downsizing due to the new economic reality we’re in.
“Because of this, we really wanted to provide graduates with opportunities to get experience,” Amy says.
This approach marries the two challenges facing access to legal services.
Luke described it as, “Young lawyers get the opportunity to grapple with real legal issues and understand how the law works in practice. And at the same time, they’re assisting and supporting people who can’t afford legal services,” he says.
Everyday Justice is practising what it preaches, taking 12 part-time interns onboard to work alongside Amy and Lauren.
Affordable services for all
One of the major reasons many people are unable to access legal services is the prohibitive fees charged by many lawyers.
Luke believes that technology holds the key to bringing costs down.
“Technology makes it easier for lawyers to use their time effectively. For every hour a lawyer is at work, around a third of that hour is spent on admin tasks.
“If we can eliminate that third, they can spend that time with clients. And the more clients they can see, the more ‘good’ we can do with the resources we have,” he says.
Indeed, technology is one of the ways Everyday Justice is making its services faster and more efficient.
Amy says the team is working with no-code legal automation firm Josef to set up and implement these technologies.
“All prospective clients need to fill out a client intake form on our website. This helps us determine if they’re eligible for our services and eliminates the admin time involved in onboarding new clients. It’s also better for the client too, as the process is a lot faster.
“When we call our prospective clients, we can focus immediately on the legal issue at hand,” she says.
The near-unlimited potential of chatbots
Everyday Justice is embracing more than just automated forms to hasten its services. The team also has an unlimited licence to the Josef Legal bot software.
“Every intern who joins our firm learns how to use bots as part of their induction training. We encourage them to think how we could curate or adapt the software to make our services more efficient, so that we can continue to reach even more people and improve their experience with us,” says Amy.
One project they’re working at the moment is a bot for automated referrals.
“If we’re unable to help someone for whatever reason, the referral bot will find out what type of legal service they need and the state they’re in – and then provide a list of free and low-cost legal providers to contact,” she says.
Breaking down physical barriers to accessing legal help
Access to legal services isn’t just a monetary issue. For many people, it also comes down to physical access.
“For some people, services that are exclusively face-to-face are hard – or even impossible – to access. This could be due to a disability, an inability to fit in appointments around carer’s duties, or simply distance,” says Luke.
“The legal profession can and should be using technologies like videoconferencing to break down the physical barriers to justice,” he continues.
Lauren says that the legal industry has had no choice but to rethink accessibility due to COVID-19.
“Throughout 2020, society relied on technology a lot more. We all began to realise the extent to which you can carry on your daily life online.
“This has been a real eye-opener for lawyers. Before the pandemic forced it upon us, too few people were stepping back and thinking about how things could be done better. Changing processes was too hard – or too inconvenient.
“Now that we’re so accustomed to meeting with clients via videoconference, we need to keep this momentum going – even after COVID-19 is behind us.
“Ultimately, it’s about what works best for individual clients and how they want to access their legal services. We still have a phone line for people who prefer that form of communication. We also use email and chat bots. We need to be flexible,” she says.
Thinking more holistically when delivering law
Accessibility issues aside, Amy believes that service quality is another major area that the legal sector should be looking at.
“Clients rarely face one legal issue in isolation, especially when it comes to the community legal sector. As lawyers, we need to think more broadly about what our clients need.
“For instance, if a client is facing some kind of economic abuse, they might benefit from a referral for accommodation or domestic violence support.
“This is something we’re acutely aware of at Everyday Justice. When we give referrals, we want to be able to recommend other relevant services too, beyond the legal domain.
“I liken us to the legal equivalent of a GP. You might first Google your symptoms and decide you need to see a doctor. You then go to your GP who examines you and gives you a sense of what’s going on. Then, if needed, they refer you to a specialist.
“Much like a GP, our job is to help with the matter at hand, while also pointing clients in the right direction as much as we can. We want to help our clients holistically, so that they can get their lives back on track.
“To see this type of thinking more widely in the legal sector, we need to get all lawyers, and especially young lawyers, to adopt this mindset.
“This is what we’re doing at Everyday Justice. We’re hoping to train new lawyers so if they start working at a community legal centre, they’ll know when and how to make referrals to other relevant services,” she says.
New entrants – embrace being a digital native
Luke says the most important asset new lawyers bring to the practice of law is their digital native skills.
He asserts that we should never assume that just because something has always been done a certain way, that it’s the right way.
“When I entered the legal field, barely anyone had computers at home. No one owned laptops that they could take to court. And mobile phones could do nothing more than make phone calls. A lot of the legal precedents we still see are based on these old ways.
“Pen and paper should not be the only acceptable standard anymore. New lawyers shouldn’t be afraid to use technology to solve challenges in innovative ways,” he says.
The role of the Centre for Legal Innovation
The College of Law is a formal partner of Everyday Justice, helping the not-for-profit identify suitable interns for the firm’s work. However, The College of Law’s Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) has a relationship with Everyday Justice that goes further.
Amy says, “CLI Executive Director Terri Mottershead is on the Everyday Justice board. But I’ve been following her work since the CLI was established.
“When I was researching whether the Everyday Justice initiative was feasible, I chatted with Terri several times and she introduced me to other people in the industry who could give me specialist advice and support.
“The role that the CLI plays in connecting people doing new things and facilitating the information sharing process is crucial in mobilising our industry to innovate,” she says.
Luke also believes that the CLI is invaluable.
“The CLI is encouraging thought-leadership to emerge in a concentrated way. It regularly ignites important conversations and amplifies key messages industry-wide.
“It means these vital conversations aren’t just popping up in pockets at random intervals here and there. They’re ongoing and across the board,” he says.
Want to learn more about the work of Everyday Justice?
The video is available on the CLI-Collaborate (CLIC) free resource hub and the podcast is Episode 47 of CLI’s The Legalpreneurs Sandbox podcast series. The session was recorded for the On Demand program at the CLI-ALPMA Innovation and Legaltech Week, February 2021.