Take a look at the lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 Vietnam War-era anthem What’s Going On:
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today . . .
These words bring to mind the current crisis surrounding access to justice our profession (and frankly, our country) is grappling with today. According to the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services:
“Easy access to affordable legal services is critical in a society based on the rule of law. Yet our courts are seriously underfunded . . .Many who need legal advice cannot afford to hire a lawyer and are forced to represent themselves. At the same time, technology, globalization, and other forces are transforming the ways legal services are accessed and delivered. Familiar practice structures are giving way in a marketplace that continues to evolve.”
But what is really going on here? We have a whole generation of law students who have struggled to obtain paying legal jobs. We have a considerable portion of the population unable to access basic civil legal services. This problem seems to challenge the basic rules of supply and demand. But wait! There is another factor here that strains the system: the cost of law school. Delivering services to fill basic civil legal needs does not actually pay enough when compared to the cost of law school. I think it is fair to say that something is just out of whack with the entire system.
As a profession, we are strongly encouraged to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services to those who cannot otherwise afford to pay for them. In addition, we regularly and consistently give our charitable giving dollars to organizations like Legal Aid. And yet we still experience a persistent and growing justice gap.
I fear that this gap will continue to expand as the legal profession and the business of law continue to be challenged by evolving market forces—forces that cause us to take a closer look at the supposed long-term superior earning power of a law degree. As long as lawyers do well financially, the constant push to fill the justice gap by pro bono might continue to work, but for how long?
So I come full circle to lyrics from yet another Marvin Gaye Motown classic – Mercy Mercy Me:
Woo ah, mercy mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?