​We learn in law school to stay in our lane. As attorneys, we bristle at the notion of giving legal advice on matters where we have limited expertise.

These reactions come from a good place and are completely warranted. Not only is there an ethical obligation not to provide incorrect information, but there is also a codified expectation that we as attorneys provide clients with an informed understanding of their rights and explain the practical implications of any legal action taken.1

The result of these policies, as well-meaning and appropriate as they may be, is a multitude of attorneys who focus on one subject and one area of law. This specialization is generally a good thing. If you are an attorney dealing with mergers and acquisitions, only engaging with mergers and acquisitions offers both protection and benefits for the attorney and the client.

Where this approach fails is when it attempts to address the interconnected and often complicated details of someone’s life. Providing legal services for all the needs of a client can be difficult when you are unable to step outside of your legal specialty.

The Double Two-tiered System of Justice

Further complicating the matter of holistic representation for the people we serve is the double two-tier system of justice that has developed in this country.

No, that wasn’t a typo. There are two, two-tiered systems that attorneys need to navigate.

Complicated enough?

The first two-tiered system is one of resources. It is not a secret that a person with more means will have access to more legal resources, creating separate groups of “haves” and “have-nots.”

This matters because of the other two-tiered system of justice that exists where representation in criminal matters is guaranteed, but representation in civil matters is not.2

In practice, a person may find themselves being represented by counsel on one issue and pro se on another.

The results of these splintered systems can be devastating. As Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, stated, “Individuals face really high stakes in the civil justice system. You can lose your children, you can lose your home, you can lose your livelihood without having legal help to get you through complicated legal proceedings.”3

The data collected regarding legal representation in civil matters for low-income people is both heartbreaking and unsurprising. According to a 2017 study commissioned by the Legal Services Corporation, more than 70 percent of low-income American households had been involved in civil legal disputes during the preceding twelve months, and in more than 80 percent of those cases, they lacked effective legal representation.4

Toward a ‘Civil Gideon’ in Wisconsin

There have been attempts to guarantee representation in civil cases. Efforts such as Milwaukee County’s Right to Counsel program and the statewide right to counsel for parents in child welfare cases (2017 Wisconsin Act 253) have had significant impacts, but these successes have been limited in scope and do not address all people or all issues.

Broader movements to advance the right to counsel in civil matters, often referred to as “civil Gideon,” have not yet been successful in Wisconsin.

Although legislation has not yet provided a solution to the complicated and often difficult task of providing quality legal representation for all people who fall below the poverty line, public interest attorneys in this state do have a solution: each other. Unfortunately, although the network of public interest attorneys in this state is strong, the state of networking among said public interest attorneys is weak.

A person in need of legal assistance in a disability appeal may also need assistance with other public benefits related to housing or driver’s license recovery. There may be issues related to family support or child care. Yet, how often do we ask about the whole person?

I know that personally I fall into the trap of focusing on the issue in front of me, and often fail to ask what other services may be needed. Referrals are not hard to make and resources are available, but attorneys far too often deal with one issue at a time and retreat into our silos of law.

Make Connections for Our Clients

If we as attorneys begin to focus on both the forest and the trees, we can start to have a bigger positive impact on the people we serve. Once we take a moment and ask the broader questions, the solutions become easier to find.

The State Bar of Wisconsin, both Wisconsin law schools, and a small army of legal volunteers are standing by to help people in need. However, they can’t do it alone. It is our duty as advocates to direct clients to the very people who we are trying to help.5

The Wisconsin public interest law community has done some amazing things and helps countless people every day. If we can all take a few extra minutes with the people we serve and make sure they have the access to justice in all the areas they need, we can grow that impact.

People need legal help and there are people ready to provide that help, so let’s make sure the two connect.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

Endnotes

1 SCR 20:2.1.

2 Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).

3 Bryce Covert, “Poor People Don’t Stand a Chance in Court,” Think Progress, May 11, 2016.

4 The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans, Legal Services Corporation, June 2017.

5 Some resources available include: The State Bar of Wisconsin Pro Bono Portal; the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic; the Madison College Legal Clinic; and the Milwaukee Justice Center.