Jim Greiner, in a recent two part post for the Haarvard Law and Policy Review (here and here), urges that we need to decide what we are trying to achieve in our access work.
He points out that without a clear sense of goal, we are making strategic decisions without being guided by any sense of purpose. He gives as an example the question why do we do debt collection work.
If the purpose of providing litigation defense to debt collection defendants is to keep the defendant from having to pay the debt, there’s a far, far, far cheaper way to do that: Just buy the debt the plaintiff is suing on. Buy the debt on the open market, and then forgive it by telling the alleged debtor that she’ll never have to pay. You can probably do that for, say, five cents on the dollar. So you can buy (and then forgive) a $2,000 debt for $100. Is that more efficient than litigation defense? It almost has to be. When you think about what a litigator needs to function (computer, printer, IT support, office, transportation, salary, benefits, administrative support, etc.), it’s hard to think of how one can produce a functioning litigator for less than (this is a blind guess) $60,000 per year. And how many $2,000 debt collection cases can that lawyer realistically defend in a year? 300? 400? For $60,000, a legal aid office could buy and forgive 600 $2,000 debts. So, the best thing to do for the legal aid office is not to hire a lawyer; rather, the best thing to do is to buy debts on the open market and forgive them. You get twice the bang for the buck.
Acknowledging the incompleteness of that analysis, he goes on to discuss other possible goals such as changing the way the court system handles such cases, increasing peoples happiness, and public trust in the system — all valuable goals. He also suggests strategic implications of such goals, including the possibility that some of these goals might not require the expensive systems of intake now in place.
Let me suggest a mode of analysis that might be quantified. I think that most of us have a range of goals, but that the weighting of the goals varies with individuals and with institutions. Some particularly value the anti-inequality impact of legal interventions, with some focusing on the individual impacts, and some the broader structural impacts. Some value public trust and confidence. Some focus on individual unfairness. And so on.
It would be interesting, at least for research purposes, to find out the differing mix of values of stakeholders, and their estimates of the impact of the potential of individual types of cases or activities to achieve those goals. A map of these “votes” would display a fascinating portrait of our community. (One that would not necessarily be comfortable to all.)
The next step would be to attempt to find ways to asses the impacts of potential groups of cases or activities, based on that map, to be used, in combination with an analysis of strategies and opportunity costs, in priority and triage decisions. (After all, in a sense, that is what we already do in community-based legal aid priority setting, we just do it instinctively.)
Such a process of analysis would lay bare the broad differences in the legal aid coalition — but it would also allow for focus on commonalities, and for respect for the fact that different stakeholders and institutions can have different focuses, yet work together, particularly on certain strategies. And it might lead to some surprises. Maybe some of the banks that support access to justice do understand that too much inequality is a risk to stability!
Thanks, Jim, for getting this discussion started.