The Pong of Law

There is a near-religious belief that the vast number of people who fall into the category of legally underserved are not only worthy of legal attention, but offer a huge opportunity for those who want to chase after their pennies.  It’s called A2J, for Access to Justice, because Legally Cheap would make for a lousy brand.

These are not the indigent, of which there are many. and for which a very different sent of concerns apply. If there’s no money for food or clothing, there’s no money for legal doodads and gadgets. The A2J industry wants nothing to do with them. They don’t even have pennies to chase.

Rather, these are the people who have jobs, money and assets, but prefer to allocate their scarce resources elsewhere. Like the newest iPhone, or hip fashions. Lawyers? Not so much. It’s not that they can’t afford a lawyer, but that they just don’t want to squander their hard-earned money on competent counsel. The priests of A2J cry sad tears over their plight, because they lack “access” to the legal services they desperately need but cannot find at the price they want to pay. Which is pretty much nothing.

So the A2J industry, out of the goodness of its heart and based upon the belief that these cheapskates will part with a few bucks, not too many but a few, to buy some form or tech gimmick that will serve as a substitute for competent counsel, was born.  In the aggregate, there are billions of dollars to be made from the cheapskates, a couple at at time, and between their sniffles of sadness, they are happy to be the ones working the dollar menu angle.

Some cheapsters have learned, perhaps from the internet, that they can give pro se a try, studiously learning the law from statutes and caselaw online, reading commentary that gives them a deeper understanding, and then walking into law confident in their ability to be every bit as good a lawyer as they see on TV.

Apparently, these efforts are inadequate to inform them not to wear their “I [heart] weed” t-shirt to their preliminary hearing, so some Northeastern law professors, a/k/a the Pharisees, came up with a really cool idea to help.

Pro se litigants are becoming increasingly common and while some self-represented parties do a pretty respectable job, others do not. Maybe they show up unprepared for their hearing. Or maybe their complaint is hand written. Perhaps they have … unique views on admiralty law and the federal legal system.

But hey, what can you expect? These litigants don’t have years of legal training and much of their legal know-how comes from a Google search — if that. Thankfully, there’s now a simple way for pro se parties to get prepped for court. An online video game developed by law professors at Northeastern University walks the self-represented through the basics of the courtroom — helping them out long before they show up in their pajamas.

Isn’t it reasonable that a person who can’t figure out what to wear to court is likely to do a fabulous job trying their case?*

Whatever drives the pro se litigant to court, though, Northeastern University’s NuLawLab wants to help them perform better. NuLawLab is an “interdisciplinary innovation laboratory” that seeks to “implement pioneering approaches to legal empowerment.”

To their credit, the Pharisees offer this online video game for free. At least for now. But if it catches on at all, someone will certainly make a far cooler version, far more fun to play, to compete with Candy Crush and Mortal Kombat.

For the high priests of A2J, who get a pretty sweet university paycheck, from which they donate nothing to the poor, offering a free video game seems rather generous and kind.  That they will go talk at conferences to persuade others, who don’t get a paycheck, to become thought leaders by serving the A2J community at a reasonable fee, fostering an industry of hope for the entrepreneurs they encourage to collect the available pennies, renders this freebie a little disingenuous.

Note that they call their quest “pioneering approaches to legal empowerment”?  It sounds pretty darned kind of them. If it was called, “encouraging people who are totally incapable of doing anything more than destroying their lives by trying to represent themselves when there is no way in hell they can do so competently,” it would sound a lot less wonderful. And it wouldn’t serve these “pioneers” interest well, as no one would ask them to speak at Legal Tech conferences attended by scores of law-trepreneurs, dedicated to building the next gen video game that isn’t quite as free, because they want to be filthy rich by their 30th birthday.

This game is called “RePresent,” and it’s no Astroids.

One of those approaches is RePresent, an online game for pro se litigants. RePresent uses gaming technology to give self-represented parties “some foundational advocacy experience before doing it for real.” It’s currently focused on Connecticut courts, but the game’s lessons seem broadly applicable.

So, how’s it play? If you were a fan of PC games circa 1994, RePresent will seem familiar. It has a flat, 2-D interface featuring the pro se party, “Mr. Player” and a decision tree that walks you through basic courtroom info and decisions. Where should you go to file paperwork? How do you introduce evidence? What should you call the judge? Etc. The better you prepare, the higher your confidence meter rises.

Putting aside the hubris of lawprofs teaching anyone foundational advocacy, and that the game is a crashing bore, there remain some problems worthy of note. Encouraging people to do something they can’t possibly accomplish successfully is driving Miss Daisy down the road to disaster. While this video game purports to teach non-lawyers how to introduce evidence, it doesn’t teach them what evidence is, what constitutes materiality and relevance. So it teaches them to jump into the fire without teaching them how not to get burned. Great.

Beyond promoting the notion that by playing a game, one can gain mad pro se lawyer skillz, it encourages the A2J industry to follow the priests, those pioneers of legal empowerment, by creating cooler games for cheapskates to suck the few shekels with which they’re willing to part away from the only resource that will actually help them, and put it instead into something they can play on their iPhone.

See? Suddenly that iPhone becomes a more worthy investment than a lawyer when your life is on the line.  And all is right with the shiny new world. At least until the verdict is rendered and more people are harmed by being “empowered” to try something they aren’t equipped to do by an industry created to suck away the few bucks they’re willing to spend on the law.

*Someone will invariably inform us that they handled their case pro se and won spectacularly, billions of dollars or got the speeding ticket dismissed. Yay, blind squirrel! Yay!

12 thoughts on “The Pong of Law

  1. Billy Bob

    We are holding a copy of Outwitting Squirrels, by Bill Adler, Jr., as you speak: Chicago Review Press, 1988, 1996. Yes, there is such a book,… and it might be a good alternative to RePresent. Yea, we knew this pro se game was coming, but not from NorthEastern,… nor NorthWestern.
    As a pro se plaintiff in federal court, we were bitch-slapped out the front door, after a lengthy delay. We found out the hard way that the purpose of the federal courts was to “dispose of cases”, come Hell or High Water. There are a myriad of ways to do this. If your complaint is hand-written, you are automatic toast.

    Our [state] chief public defender warned us that this tactic was not going to work. Why not, we asked? “Because you won’t know how to file a motion,” he said. So the question is: Will this game, or any game, teach us how to file a motion? Ha. (Only well-trained, experienced lawyers know how to do that, unfortunately.) Finding a well-trained, experienced lawyer for an affordable price is the problem. We don’t see how any game theory or any technology can solve that problem. However, that will not stop the law-trepreneurs from trying. We like that new word.

    1. SHG Post author

      Finding a perfect 10 carat engagement ring for an affordable price is the problem. FTFY.

      I keep explaining that smart kids won’t go to law school, pay three years of tuition (or accumulate three years of debt), lose three years of earned income, endure three years of really hard work, to become lawyers if they can’t emerge with a reasonable assurance that they will be able to put food on the table and buy their kids new shoes. And if they don’t, ten years later, there won’t be a group of smart kids, now fortified with experience, capable of being well-trained, experienced lawyers and providing zealous representation.

      It’s not that they’re greedy. It’s that when a lawyer goes to the supermarket, the cashier charges him for the food just like everyone else. The car dealer doesn’t give him a free car for being such a good guy. Even at Starbucks, he has to pay for his venti mocha frappucino with soy skim.

      The legal system is hard, and shitty, for the best of us. It’s impossible for those who have no clue. But people need lawyers and want them to be “affordable”? Why not? I want everything to be affordable. I want everything that’s affordable to work properly, be a good value and last more than 7 hours before it falls to shit. We can all dream, right?

      If it makes you feel any better, even if you know how to prepare a motion and where to file it, your motion would still be a loser because you wouldn’t have had the knowledge and ability to craft a viable motion aside from the pedestrian technical aspects. Wearing a suit and tie to court is certainly better than your “I’m Not Your Corporate Person” hoodie, but it’s not enough to win a case.

      1. Billy Bob

        TL;dr. FIFTY dollars to you! FTFY?
        Construction work is hard and shitty. The only difference is, we construction workers wear clothes appropriate to the task, unlike you lawyers in your ill-fitting suits and touseled hair. Contrary to popular opinion, you have to be SMART to be a construction
        worker. If you are not, you (i) get hurt, or (ii) you wear yourself out and (iii) fail to get the job done. We’ll take a smart construction worker over a dumbass lawyer any time. You do not have to be smart to be a lawyer; you just have to be a smartass AND “pass the bar”. Ha. There’s a reason lawyers charge up front: In the event that they fail (which is often), there are NO refunds. A terrible occupation, worse than being a cop or a fireman. (Or a school teacher!)

        1. SHG Post author

          If your lawyer wore ill-fitting suits, you picked the wrong lawyer. Which would, in your case, be shocking, Bill.

  2. EH

    Sigh. Anything that makes MORE people go pro se will mean I have to litigate against more pro se folks, and that is fucking miserable for everyone. It’s misery for me because it’s hard not to feel at least a SMALL pang of guilt as I win on SJ, or on yet another “clerical default for failing to respond to final request for admissions.” (when dealing with pros se folks, this is the Best. Rule. Ever.) And it sucks having to read what they think of as motions. I’m sure it’s not great for them, either.

    Oh well.

    1. SHG Post author

      But the “SMALL pang of guilt” goes away after a while, because your clients decided that paying for a lawyer was a better allocation of scarce resources than playing a video game.

  3. Richard G. Kopf

    SHG, you haven’t lived until you have supervised upwards of 150 pro se cases filed in a federal court. Setting aside the habeas cases, I constantly have to remind myself that the phrase “if you can’t afford justice you don’t deserve it” should be employed sparingly.

    So, we hire an experienced lawyer (2nd in her law school class) to pick through the idiocy in the faint hope that not everyone who files these things are bat shit crazy. From a cost-benefit point of view, we would be better off sending most of them long-lasting injectible Thorazine. Now that I think about it, maybe the law professors you highlight could use a little of that wonder drug too.

    Have a nice day. I’m off to Rogers, Arkansas. All the best.

    RGK

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m familiar with the type. We call them clients. We, the lawyers, stand between the court and the insanity, and we, too, are underappreciated. A little thorazine wouldn’t hurt us, either.

      1. REvers

        Pick another drug. Thorazine has never looked to me like all that much fun.

        Unless you like to drool.

        1. SHG Post author

          Jeez, it was just a hypoethetical psychotropic medication. Don’t be so literal. And at my age, drooling is an occupational hazard anyway.

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