Wednesday, September 06, 2006

shlep under the radar

shlep - the Self-Help Law Express - is a project of David Giacalone, blogger at f/k/a (formerly ethicalEsq.)

For more than two centuries, American consumers have been shlepping toward justice — they’ve been manacled to an expensive lawyer in order to solve a legal problem, or to protect, assert or defend their rights. Our courts have become costly, complicated, lawyer-centered bureaucracies, rather than the accessible, client-centered dispute resolution centers they should be. As a result, studies show that 80% or more of the legal needs of the poor and working poor currently are unmet in the United States, while even solid members of the middle class often cannot afford to hire a lawyer when a legal need arises....

The Self-Help Law revolution is a multifaceted movement that strives to give legal consumers the tools and assistance necessary to solve most of their legal problems themselves -- if they so choose -- including “representing” yourself in court as a pro se litigant. The movement and process has been led by courts that are being overwhelmed with unrepresented parties, and by consumer advocates who believe that fair and effective access to justice is a universal right that should finally be made a reality in 21st Century America.
shlep is currently in pre-launch mode; David is posting a series of background postings prior to officially going public. One of these postings discusses the pro se "prosumer":
It’s been a quarter century since futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” to describe the merging of the roles of consumer and producer. (The Third Wave, 1980) A decade ago, Don Tapscott expanded on the concept of “prosumption” in The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril In The Age of Networked Intelligence (1996) — explaining that digitalization, “internetworking,” disintermediation (removing the middleman) and other forces are blurring the roles of producer and consumer, and creating a digital frontier where the “players, dynamics, rules and requirements for survival and success are all changing.”...

For many of their routine legal needs, self-help law already allows average
Americans to play a more extensive role as prosumer than that envisioned for health care consumers by Tapscott in Digital Economy or by Brett Triuko in Healthcare 2020: Technology in the New Millennium (AllBusiness, Dec. 1999). Thus, in nonlitigation matters, consumers have a wide selection of comprehensive “do-it-yourself” kits available, on topics such as will-making, landlord/tenant and tax preparation. In addition, through courthouse kiosks and other self-help centers and programs (in at least 25 states), prosumers can take charge of their own legal problems, with assistance that allows them to remove the middleman and proceed with relative confidence in many family court matters (i.e., divorce, custody, child support), simple estate
proceedings, name changes, traffic court and more, as well as traditional small claims disputes....

shlep hopes, therefore, that the many legal weblogs that focus on technology
and the practice of law will take a close look at prosumption and legal
We also hope that law librarians such as Tom Boone at Library Laws, Cindy Chick at LawLibTech, Jim Milles and his colleagues at Out of the Jungle, the Law Dawg pack, Ron & Joe at the Law Library Blog, and Stephen Francoeur at Digital Reference will add to the discussion and analysis.
I've always been of two minds about law library service to pro se patrons. Certainly there are relatively simple legal matters that can be handled less expensively by a patient and disciplined pro se litigant. On the other hand, many matters which seem simple can have larger problems lurking within, and the pro se litigant can be at a serious disadvantage if his or her opponent has legal counsel. On the third hand, having worked for many years at law school libraries just down the street from various public service agencies and charities, I have seen my share of individuals whose legal disputes were the least of their problems. The motorcycle rider who is convinced that the CIA has implanted a chip in his head and is controlling his movements needs more help than a law library can give.

More fundamentally, though, I worry about the unbundling of legal services and the idea that public access to law libraries and legal information is an adequate substitute for legal assistance. I worry that, in holding ourselves out as providers of legal information to the public, we are in fact creating an illusion of legal service and equal access to justice.

I gather that the self-help law movement presented in shlep aims to go beyond simply providing public access to legal information. Access to unmediated legal information can only go so far in helping those individuals most in need of help. Law libraries have a role to play, along with legal aid agencies, pro bono practitioners, and more.

Do you want to play a part? shlep needs your help:
shlep is seeking co-editors to contribute regularly to its content and help guide its construction and evolution. [See the About page for a discussion of the current goals for this weblog.] Pro se practitioners; law librarians; and lawyers, law professors or students committed to achieving access to justice for all Americans (especially
through the use of assisted self-help programs and information technology) are likely prospects. Good writing, good manners and good sense are prerequisites -- along with enthusiasm.

Anyone interested in making a significant contribution to shlep is urged to contact David Giacalone at “shlep AT localnet dot com” [no spaces in the address]. Let me know your background, areas of interest, any relevant expertise (including weblogging), and how often/much you would be able to contribute to shlep. Information on how you might like to structure the weblog and share in posting duties would also be appreciated.


david giacalone said...

Thank you for your extensive coverage of shlep's near-launch and discussion of some important issues. I hope this posting will help us field a strong team of shleppers.

The worry that consumers may bite off more than they can safely chew is a serious one. However, funneling all legal problems through lawyers has resulted in disenfranchising the majority of Americans from meaningful access to justice. In addition, the non-rich always have to make tradeoffs in deciding what service or product thay can afford (think, e.g., of the purchase and repair of automobiles). Their justice system shoud be structured to be as accessible as possible. [And, the mentally unbalanced consumer who can afford a lawyer can cause far more judicial disruption and harm to other parties than can the pro se litigant.]

You're right: finding the balance between helping with information-gathering and giving legal advice is a significant problem -- and one that librarians can help to solve. Part of that solution, of course, may very well be loosening the now very anti-consumer definition of the "unauthorized practice of law" -- a topic near and dear to my old alter ego ethicalEsq.

Thanks for starting a good discussion.

Stephen Francoeur said...

If it is law librarians you're thinking of, you probably meant Steve Cohen from Library Stuff instead of me (I'm an academic librarian at Baruch College).