Nearly four in 10 middle-income Americans face a legal problem, but most are unable to hire an attorney, the American Bar Association reports.
At the same time, the legal sector has been bleeding jobs for years and the employment rate for recent law school graduates has fallen six years in a row.
Now, the New Jersey State Bar Association is examining initiatives that will bring those groups together in a way that could benefit both, as well as society. The association’s recently appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on Unmet Legal Needs is charged with seeking innovative ways to responsibly match those who need affordable legal help with lawyers who need clients and provide them the support and guidance to ensure it is properly administered.
"We are facing a very serious and complex problem in New Jersey. We established this commission of highly respected jurists, phenomenally talented lawyers, recognized advocates and legal scholars from across the state to look for a practical solution. While the group is just beginning its important work, the desire to solve this problem is palpable and contagious," said NJSBA President Paris P. Eliades.
The NJSBA commission is part of a national trend. Legal organizations and bar associations around the country are working to find solutions to address the ever-widening justice gap. For instance, the American Bar Association is offering catalyst grants to programs that propose to employ new lawyers in innovative ways to address the needs of poor and moderate-income residents. Law schools like Rutgers University School of Law Newark have established law firms to train their graduates and provide affordable help to the public. And other organizations, like Legal Aid of Arkansas, are using newly admitted attorneys to help reach rural clients.
The New Jersey commission is being co-chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Virginia A. Long and former Supreme Court Justice Helen E. Hoens.
Its membership is comprised of retired jurists, legal academics, and attorneys who work in corporations, non-profit entities, healthcare and government agencies, and represent every geographical area of the state, as well as those from solo practices to large firms.
“I am honored to be serving as the co-chair for the blue ribbon commission. Reflecting the wisdom of those long part of the leadership of the bar and those just beginning to practice, called from all areas of practice, and all parts of our state, it is because we represent the variety of experiences and viewpoints that make up the rich and diverse fabric of our society that I am confident we will succeed,” said Hoens.
The commission recently held an organizational meeting at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick.
To advance its mission, the commission members will be studying six areas to look for innovations and ideas that could be applied in New Jersey to address the issue. The areas of study are initiatives at law schools, law firms, bar associations, in the Judiciary, among nonprofits, and proposals that are new and unique.
“Finding ways to make legal representation available to persons of moderate means is an enormous challenge that calls for new and creative strategies, but I am confident that the commission, with members drawn from all corners of our profession and our state, is up to the task,” said Long.