Why the Litigant Experience Matters to Lawyers—and Law Schools

December 11, 2017

Nicole Bradick is a lawyer, Chief Strategy Officer at CuroLegal, and an advocate for expanding access to justice. As she writes in a recent post at Lawyerist, she was a federal court litigator for eight years and had some exposure to state court pro bono cases, but her observational visit to an eviction court this summer was the first time she ever observed such a court from the self-represented litigant’s perspective. Her verdict? “Eviction court really, really sucks.”

Bradick writes that she was dismayed by the treatment of the litigants and an environment that fosters imbalance, and that she was “[e]mbarrassed because in all my time practicing law, I never bothered to sit in court and feel what it’s like in the shoes of a self-represented litigant.”

She is, of course, not the only one.

Lawyers rarely have the opportunity to see things through the eyes of a client, much less through the eyes of self-represented litigants, people with whom they often have little to no contact—unless they happen to be the opposing party.

And far too often, new lawyers have not received the message that the experiences of litigants matter—whether those litigants are their clients or self-represented. This is why our 6th Annual Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers Conference featured client perspectives, the legal consumer, and people from across the country who are trying to ensure that clients and consumers anchor our approach to legal services and our legal system, alongside legal educators representing law schools that are bringing client and consumer needs to the center of legal education.

Speakers from Paula Littlewood, Executive Director of the Washington State Bar, to Eddie Hartman, co-founder of LegalZoom, warned of the coming shifts in demand for legal services and urged legal educators to prepare their students to navigate those shifts and to be part of creating a better system.

In her recent post, Bradick also advocated for putting legal consumers at the center of education:

“This needs to be part of every student’s training. Yes, I sat in on hearings as a law student, but it was always with the lens of learning how to practice law, never with the explicit intent to understand the barriers facing low-income Americans in the justice system. That lens is critical.”

We think so, too. And we are reinvigorated by the commitment we saw at our October conference from legal educators who want to ensure that law students emerge ready to enter the profession not just thinking like lawyers, but like clients.

As it happens, that focus is a good segue to one of IAALS’ latest projects, Think Like a Client, which is seeking to tease out what clients value in their lawyers through a qualitative analysis of years of lawyer reviews on online legal services marketplace, Avvo. As we consider the best models for legal education and for the broader legal system, one thing is clear: there is no perspective that matters more than the individuals the system is meant to serve.