Northwest Justice Project assisted
27,383 people, including nearly 12,000
children, and closed over 12,600 cases
in 2013. These numbers are staggering,
but still demonstrate that only a fraction of the two million low-income people who need legal assistance obtain it.
Yes, I did just say two million people.
These statistics do not consider our
“moderate means” population. People
who earn 200–400 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced
fees for legal services. Often these are
called low bono services or moderate
means services. A family of three who
earns between $39,580 and $79,160
qualifies for legal assistance. The latest Washington census shows that the
median income of Washington families
is $59,000 and that the average household is a little over 2. 5 people. In other
words, the average household in our
state is “moderate means” and entitled
to low bono services. These moderate
means citizens cannot afford the standard attorney fees charged by lawyers.
Today, neither those of moderate
means or low income are able to obtain the legal services they need. Their
access to justice is decreasing. That’s
bad for them, bad for us, and bad for
Despite our widespread and valiant
efforts to give assistance, this population is too large and growing. Most
firms’ ability to reduce fees and/or offer
pro bono services, especially solo and
small practitioners, is limited in today’s
economy. And so the gap grows.
In Washington, we’re launching a
first-of-its-kind program to provide
low-cost legal services. The Supreme
Court issued an order to create limited license legal technicians, or LLLTs.
While this step has been viewed locally
and nationally as an innovative and
progressive step, it’s just a part of the
solution. Much more needs to be done if
we are to avoid the peril that awaits us.
Choosing Solutions and
Solutions to the access problem are rooted in one fundamental principle: Access
to legal services for moderate income
citizens can only be made possible if we
make legal services affordable. For the
moderate means population who cannot
afford our $225–500 legal fees, we need
to shift to fees that they are more likely
to afford at the $50–150 per hour range,
and no more than $200 at the high end.
But how do we do that?
One method to bring down fees
and costs is to systemically retool our
profession one office at a time using
technology, new business models, innovation, improved and less expensive
legal education, and systematized,
automated, unbundled and packaged
If you read my columns, you know
this is a passionate topic for me. I have
a lot to say about it and, indeed, it has
become a national conversation. But for
today, suffice to say that we must find a
solution to the access catch- 22 before
other stakeholders — including underserved citizens, those in politics, and
big businesses — find a solution for us.
It’s no secret that large corporations
see a marketable and lucrative opportunity left by the void lawyers are failing
to fill. They want access to the existing
lawyer dominated legal market estimated at $300 billion annually, and know
that access to that market comes by
entering through (and then owning) the
“moderate means” market first. Some
believe that this underserved middle
income market that lawyers seem to be
simply abandoning may be worth $100
As lawyers, our role today remains as
accessible and trusted problem solvers.
We must help our clients find solutions
to disputes at an affordable rate. If a ma-
jority of our citizens continue to be de-
nied access to justice, then we threaten
more than just our independence: we
threaten our democracy, the rule of law,
and the relevance of concepts like “lib-
erty and justice for all.”
Just as importantly, if a majority
of our low- and moderate-income citi-
zens continue to be denied access to
justice, then we invite and hand legal
service providers billions of dollars of
legal business that we will never re-
gain again. Others speculate that this
path leads to a time in the next decade
where lawyers lose most of their mar-
ket share to more affordable providers
like Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom,
to name two of hundreds in existence,
and we are left with a comparably
small niche market segment limited to
large business litigation. Maybe this is
all crazy talk, but then again, just last
month Walmart opened the first of a
chain of low-cost legal services in one
of its stores in Toronto.
Regardless of your take on all of this,
one thing is clear: the time is upon us.
The economy, coupled with technological innovation, has created either the
perfect storm or the perfect opportunity for our profession to rebound and
lead. For now, it’s our choice: Do we
regain our role in society by retooling
the way we practice law in order to provide affordable access for all? Or do we
maintain our current methods of practice and watch our market shift from
beneath us and endure the cascade of
consequences? It’s a choice each of us
makes beginning with the next case you
take, the next partners’ meeting you attend, the next investment in technology
you choose, and the next business decision you make. What different choices
might you consider? What path will you
follow? And, in a decade, will you have
regrets or great success?
These decisions are in your hands as
stewards of the future of the profession.
Choose wisely. NWL
WSBA President Patrick A. Palace
practices in Tacoma. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-627-
3883. Follow him on Twitter: @palacelaw.
. . . we must find a solution to the access
catch- 22 before other stakeholders — including
underserved citizens, those in politics, and big
businesses — find a solution for us.