Advocates Ideabook

Design Lessons from the 1980s Legal Clinics for the Access to Justice

Consumer Law Design Insights - by Margaret Hagan - from Legal Clinics - dark brown

As more talk grows about Internet & mobile-based technology opening up a new era of Consumer Law, it’s useful to look back a few decades when there was a similar tide of activity around expanding access to civil legal procedures to the middle classes of Americans.

After the Supreme Court ruling of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona opened up the possibility for lawyers to advertise on television, several upstart law firms tried to capture 70% of the population’s routine legal needs through scaled-up, commodity-based law firms located on America’s main streets.  These started off calling themselves Legal Clinics — most prominent among them were Hyatt Legal Services and Jacoby & Meyers.

These Legal Clinics don’t exist today in their original form.  Both firms morphed into other kinds of legal beasts, no longer the consumer-law centered main street law, now Hyatt is mainly in the business of group legal services plans and Jacoby & Meyers is more focused on personal injury litigation.

But thanks to a trove of articles from the 1980s that my colleague Neal Sangal found for his research on legal clinics, I’ve been looking into what the exact strategies and values these legal clinics had in their heyday.

Even if their business model & scaling strategy ultimately didn’t pay off in the 1980s legal environment, the Legal Clinics did enjoy many types of success before they morphed away from the clinic model.  They engaged middle class consumers to tackle their legal problems.  They build tech-based systems to handle routine problems. They radically lowered the prices that people would have to pay for legal solutions.  They built a distinct brand that people trusted, had name recognition, and could be a go-to for finding legal help.

That’s not to say that I would start my own consumer law business in their footsteps — more careful attention needs to be paid to why their expansion model ultimately didn’t pay off.

What I did want to take away especially are the core value propositions & changes that Hyatt Legal Services put forward back in the early 1980s.  This shortlist of 5 things that a law firm, court, or legal aid organization should be doing is crucial, and still relevant thirty years later.

Here are the points that Hyatt put forward in October 1984 of how it would do legal services differently — and that still are breath of fresh air:

Price: “Hyatt offers fees about 30% lower than the average. Fixed fees for standard services were found to be much more important to middle-class clients than low cost.”

Convenience: “Neighborhood centers, evening & Saturday hours, ground level signage, and retail characteristics all contribute to the firm’s accessibility and lower client anxiety about coming to the office.”

Quality: “Internal training programs, experienced lawyers, and expertise in focused areas are measures taken by Hyatt to deliver legal service quality. Checklists, flow charts, and forms help achieve quality control in all branches.”

Speed of Service: ”Document production is computerized to cut down on time spent by lawyers on paperwork.”

Respect: “Lack of respect by lawyers toward their clients is the No. 1 factor in resistance to seeing a lawyer. Hyatt is sensitive to this issue and takes steps to ensure attorney compliance.”

(quotes taken from the article “Hyatt targets legal market with five benefits: Advertising only part of formula,” from Marketing News, October 26 1984 — write me for a copy).

What I take away from these 5 points, that should be applicable in 2014’s tech-based consumer law movement are the following insights:

  1. Fixed fees will draw in users, because of greater transparency and assurance about costs.  Discounts may work, but they still leave a sense of the unknown that consumers will dread.  Give as much upfront reassurance about how much money a person will spend, and they will be more likely to engage in the transaction.
  2. A process-based guide to law, with maps and lists that guide a legal task, will train lawyers better and give consumers more confidence & co-piloting ability.
  3. A consumer law organization needs to build its brand, whether online or in person, so people know that it is available and trusted.  Its brand needs to convey that it’s convenient, transparent & accessible — even if this is not in an actual retail location.
  4. The service professionals need to show respect in their demeanor & their actions to the client.  This means giving more agency to the client with co-piloting tools, clear explainers that make the lawyer’s work more transparent, and other tools & resources that make them feel in control, in the loop, and getting it right.  We need more research into legal users’ experience to find out what these ‘respectful’ tools might be, that get the balance right in the lawyer-client relationship.