The Access to Justice Movement Begins Again

There’s a movement afoot to do what we set out to do a long, long time ago: provide access to justice for all. You would think that we would have figured out how to at least make justice accessible for all since “Equal Justice Under Law” is a phrase chiseled into the building housing our highest court and we often recite the words “justice for all” when prompted to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet, the task has proven daunting. 

Lawyers all adopt a creed when admitted to the bar that typically includes a commitment to be the mechanism through which all people may obtain access to justice.

I recall sitting in a large auditorium in Austin, Texas to enter my first state bar and reading through The Texas Lawyer’s Creed that I had just been given, it seemed, moments before entering the room. The list of duties, obligations, responsibilities, and aspirations were endless. I was overwhelmed with the responsibility that I realized I was about to agree to. Yet, the values laid out in that creed were the ones that had driven me to law school in the first place. Among them existed this one: “I am responsible to assure that all persons have access to competent representation regardless of wealth or position in life.”

The economic limitations on access to justice are not new. The Carnegie Report, a 2007 report developed to review the status of our legal education system and offer recommended reforms, reproduced a passage by William Rowe written in 1917 as follows:

Our system is highly legalistic. Based as it is upon individual liberty and freedom of justice, all citizens are constantly forced into contact with the law in order to advance their liberty by an ascertainment and protection of individual legal rights, in other words, by seeking justice under the law. In this process, lawyers are an absolutely essential element, but, for a majority of our people, the expense of the process, especially under the complicated conditions of modern life, is prohibitive. Hence, the righteous complaint that the liberty and rights of the mass of the people are now crushed and lost beneath the weight of the system. The remedy is plain. The public must, where necessary, bear these particular burdens of government. The people at large and their government must take over and organize the work of legal aid societies, not as a charitable or social-service enterprise, but as a necessary and long-neglected government function. For those who cannot bear the burden of expense, legal advice and justice must be free. Otherwise, our boast of freedom, our whole system, indeed, becomes a mockery.

William V. Rowe, Legal Clinics and Better Trained Lawyers – A Necessity, 11 Ill. L. Rev. 591, 592 (1917); Roy Stuckey et al., Best Practices for Legal Education: A Vision and a Road Map (2007), at 18-19. The Carnegie Report criticized our current legal education system directly on its failure to meet the duty to provide access to justice by charging that “[l]aw schools are not producing enough graduates who provide access to justice, are adequately competent, and practice in a professional manner.” Id. The Report notes that the problem is not limited to access to justice for the poor: “Law Schools do not even produce lawyers who meet the needs of the middle class. ‘The academy has failed to train lawyers who provide legal services to the middle and working classes, which, of course, constitute the overwhelming majority of American society.’” Id.

We need new ideas to address the access to justice problem. The idea behind Fair Shake is to provide on-the-job training for attorneys who want to fill the gap in access to environmental justice through their own practices. Attorneys in residence at Fair Shake learn a model of providing legal services to modest means clients. Over time, we hope to work toward elimination of that gap to make good on the promise of equal access to justice for all. Imagine what equal access to environmental justice could look like for communities across the country. 

We believe that the Fair Shake residency program will work for other practice areas as well. This is just the beginning of a greater access to justice movement. We are proud to be a part of something big: something that may be able to address a persistent problem in our system.