Ed. note: Please welcome Mary E. Juetten of Evolve Law to our pages. She will be writing about improving access to justice through technology, innovation, and collaboration within and outside the legal industry.
Access to justice was on the agenda at the recent ABA Annual meeting and even appeared in the Global Legal Blockchain announcement, that took place during ILTA 2017. The 2016 ABA Report on the Future of Legal Services in the US noted that, in addition limited financial resources, people cannot address their legal issues because they often do not know that a legal problem exists. Therefore, it’s equally important to address this education gap, particularly for preventative legal services.
Statistics Don’t Lie
Over the past seven years since my law school graduation, I have spoken to thousands of entrepreneurs about taking early steps to protect their businesses. SBA statistics show that over 19 million businesses operate as sole proprietorships, putting personal assets at risk. These companies are small operations, without any employees, and over 80% report revenue less than $50K. Therefore, the sole proprietors most likely cannot afford a traditional lawyer. Although incorporation or LLC formation is relatively inexpensive, for some reason, these business owners forge ahead, risking their family security.
A couple years ago, when preparing for Small Business Association (SBA) and SCORE (formerly Service Corps of Retired Executives) webinars, I looked at the Kaufman studies that showed at the end of the first year in business only one in five startups had protected any of their intellectual property. In one webinar, with over 400 businesses owners, more than 100 responded online that they do not believe that they had any intellectual property (IP) worth protecting. Of course, all have some type of IP, and all businesses have a name that either needs to be protected or defended. It appears we have an education challenge around mission-critical steps for small business.
Why worry about small business? Besides the fact that, in 2013, 48% or 56.8 million people work for the 28.8 million American small businesses with under 500 employees; any legal issue within a business, regardless of size, will spill over into employee’s personal lives.
Not only do we need to educate business owners on the preventative steps for their corporate well-being, but the same applies for individuals, particularly regarding consumer rights, family law, and estate planning. Dying without will is problematic during a terrible time, and more than 60% of Americans do not have a will.
Call to Action: National Awareness Campaign
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. We often hear that more than 80% of Americans cannot obtain the legal help that they need whether criminal or civil. The Justice Gap released in June 2017 by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) statistics tell us that 86% of low-income Americans cannot access civil justice. Further, some people are not clear whether they need legal help. An Avvo survey reported that one in five — a new twist on the 80/20 rule — think that they can research their issue adequately, to replace an attorney.
Leaving aside do-it-yourself legal solutions, the idea that people want to take matters into their own hands is a double-edged sword. While it’s good that they access some type of help, the outcome is often questionable. Also, people need to know that they have a problem that requires legal expertise to research or consult appropriate resources. Which highlights our education issue in addition to the more obvious access to justice program.
This education gap needs a national awareness campaign. Like medical public service announcements (PSAs) for regular annual health appointments, we need to elevate the average person’s knowledge for preventative legal checkups. For example, create a PSA on the legal steps as both an individual, employee or small business owner necessary to protect your family’s well-being.
We will need to be ready with affordable, technology-enabled solutions to these legal problems. Ideas include partnerships with insurance companies and banks to flag risks for citizens as they take out policies and open bank accounts. Perhaps when you open a business bank account as a sole proprietor, the bank could pass on information about how to set up your business properly. Finally, more public, private partnerships with organizations like LSC and the ABA can assist in closing both the education and access to justice gaps. Please reach out on Twitter @maryjuetten to join the conversation.
Mary E. Juetten lives on the West Coast, holds a J.D., and is both an American and Canadian professional accountant. Mary is passionate about metrics that matter and access to justice. She founded Traklight and Evolve Law and consults as an Access Advocate for LegalShield. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @maryjuetten.