Written by Tom Gordon
Even while unveiling a bevy of new programs, Laurence Tribe announced that he is stepping down as Senior Counselor for the Access to Justice Initiative at the Department of Justice. The new programs his Initiative unveiled are aimed at providing greater access to legal services for veterans, people with potential workplace wage violation complaints, and homeowners facing foreclosure. As laudable as such programs are, these efforts still appear to be trying to bridge the gap to affordable and accessible legal services at its widest point. Mr. Tribe deserves accolades for placing his considerable reputation and vast legal scholarship behind such a worthy effort, but it is difficult to understand why Tribe never fully exploited his office's capacity to act as a bully pulpit from which he could better describe and amplify the importance of greater access to justice for the average American - a need greatly underrated and ill-understood across all levels of American society.
Amongst the announcements were new programs aimed at expanding and standardizing the use of mediation nationwide in resolving home foreclosure disputes - a good idea by any measure, but then there are few legal disputes that wouldn't benefit from the increased use of mediation. Home foreclosure is justifiably a prominent concern in the current economic climate, but as Tribe acknowledges, the vast gulf between average Americans and affordable, accessible legal services existed long before the collapse of the housing market. In announcing a new website aimed at connecting veterans with local lawyers, John Levi, one of the creators of StatesideLegal.org, noted that it received 35,000 hits since June without having received any official publicity. Such overwhelming demand justifies the value of such programs, even while exposing their limitations. In fairness to Tribe's efforts, every program his Initiative announced will help improve access to legal services, but it is equally fair to note that by limiting the scope of such programs to specific groups of Americans, that still leaves millions out in the cold.
Far from a gratuitous knock of Tribe's laudable goals and achievements in his time with the Access to Justice Initiative, these criticisms highlight the insufficiency of limiting such efforts to the public sector. By lifting some key institutional barriers to the growth of new legal markets, such as permitting widespread use of non-lawyer practitioners and increasing the availability of self-help legal tools, we could tap into the same drive for innovation that fuels other successful business models. His replacement at the Access to Justice Initiative should focus not on creating new public programs, but instead on clearing away the impediments that prevent the private sector from innovating new solutions. Most critically, however, his successor should use his or her station to place access to justice at the forefront of the public policy debate, a role at which Tribe fell sadly short during his tenure.