California Supreme Court Justice Calls for Improving Access to Legal Services

Goodwin Liu, a justice of the California Supreme Court, came to Marquette Law School Thursday to be a judge of the Jenkins Honor Moot Court Competition Final Round. The widely-known justice also brought with him a fascinating personal story and provocative ideas for lawyers and law students on several subjects, presented during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall. I encourage you to listen to the program by clicking here. This blog item will on two of the messages Liu delivered.

Liu, then a professor at the University of California-Berkeley law school, was nominated in 2010 by President Barack Obama to be a federal appeals court judge. The nomination drew strong opposition from Republicans in the US Senate, largely because of controversial things Liu had written. After the nomination was held up for more than a year, Liu withdrew. He was appointed by California Gov. Jerry Brown to that state’s Supreme Court in 2011.

Did Liu regret the things he had written? Liu said there were  some specific things he would handle differently in retrospect, but overall, he was not sorry he had taken strong stands. He urged the law students in the audience not to fear taking positions on things they care about.

Liu said, “You should not just kind of live your life in an exceedingly cautious or antiseptic way, never saying anything, never doing anything that could cause someone else to disagree with you. No. That’s not a good way to live. You have to think about (and) remember why you came to law school — what were the things that motivated you – and, within reasonable ethical and prudent bounds, pursue those things. Because you’re not going to be happy if you don’t do that. . . .  or do anything. . . .

“I had a friend who told me a nice quote once, which was, ‘no one ever goes to his grave seeking an epitaph that reads, “He kept his options open.” I mean, that is no way to live.”

Gousha asked Liu if the nation was in a situation where there two justice systems, one for those who can afford lawyers and the other for those who can’t.

Liu said that was one of the biggest issues facing America. He spoke of the principle that everyone should have equal access to the legal system.

“The principle is an important one .We are so far away from that principle overall in society. Most of us, myself included, do lots of important transactions every year or every couple years where we probably should have a lawyer look things over. Did you ever buy a house? Did you ever read all of those documents? My guess is probably not, but you just signed a lot of your life away in those documents. Wouldn’t it be useful to make sure all those things were done right? This is a big thing.

“Two piece of concluding thought there. One is, of course, that I’ll offer an exhortation to the lawyers and the law students here that doing work for people who can’t afford legal services is so important. No matter whatever you do in your career, that has to be one of the things that you do.  . . . Especially for the younger people here, it is one of the things that will actually give you the greatest skill-building types of opportunities. . . .

“The other piece however, is more fundamental, which I think those of you who are in the public policy realm might give some thought to. And that is (that) law is a strange profession in so far as it is not a differentiated profession as, for example, the health care industry is. Not that our health care industry is any great paragon of success. However, it is the case that when you go to seek health care, it isn’t thar you only go and see a doctor, a physician. We have differentiated roles up and down the health care system. We have nurses, we have nurse’s assistants, we have physician’s assistants, we have technicians, we have all kinds of people where we are triaging your needs to the lowest-cost provider and allocating in an efficient way functions up and down the system and differentiating those functions up and down the system.

“In the legal system, we don’t have that. We have lawyers and nobody else, right? And it doesn’t seem to me that it’s absolutely necessary to have just this one model where, for many things like an eviction or a simple family law matter or immigration matter, whatever it , a lot of things are just about  navigating complicated forms or figuring out what building to go to, or how to do a process.

“There are a lot of roles there that could be filled by people who will not be as fancy as all of you will be when you graduate from this august institution, right? If we could bring the cost of those services down by having different kinds of roles to help people navigate the legal system, why, I think that would be a great service.

“The analogy I would give is: The cost of accessing this kind of basic legal service should be no greater—we should have a model where it’s no greater — than the cost of getting a plumber. If your toilet doesn’t work, you’re going to get it fixed and you’re going to pay the price of a plumber to get it fixed.

“Well, shouldn’t we have at least the same bargain available for very important things in people’s lives, like whether you’re buying a house, whether you’re negotiating a custody agreement, whether you’re trying to get special education for your kids, whatever it is? These are at least as important as your toilet. And so we need to have a market in which access to those kinds of things can be priced accordingly, so average people – average people, I’m not talking about low income people, I’m talking about average people –can afford them. . . .

“I think this is an idea whose time has come. And I think also, for the younger generation, technology is going to be a big part of this, too. Law firms remain brick and mortar enterprises in an age when most  legal services can be done pretty much at a home computer in many instances.“

Liu said that some say that the legal profession resists such ideas as a way to defend the profession. “I think that kind of mentality has a shelf life, because there is a greater and greater demand in our society for fair access to legal services.” Liu said. “As the world becomes more complicated, more and more people are going to need this and we as part of the legal profession should be part of the solution, not a hindrance to it.”


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