The Next Best Thing To Legal Aid

“The vast majority of those who qualify for legal aid, don’t get legal services because there aren’t enough legal aid lawyers to go around,” it says below the video.  Well, it’s unlikely that any would argue that there are enough legal aid lawyers to go around, though there are certainly more than enough lawyers without much to do.  But to make them into legal aid lawyers, it takes money to pay them.  So where’s the money?

There is a perception that low-income people have ways through legal aid channels to get the legal services they need. But John Mayer learned that, “Eighty percent of people eligible for legal aid are unable to get in the door. There aren’t enough legal aid lawyers in the world.”

So he and his Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction have developed A2J Author, a software program that helps lawyers, not programmers, help indigent litigants get started on their cases pro se.

Huh?  Where does this 80% come from?  Someone “learned that”? Is this another snake oil salesman hoping to toss out nonsensical unsourced numbers in the hope that no lawyer with half a brain will notice?  Not quite. This is another flag bearer of the ABA Journal, John Mayer,  Legal Rebel.


According to the video, produced on the dime of no more (or less) a credible source than Thomson Reuters, Mayer has “pioneered a new way to make up for the lack of legal aid lawyers.”  What’s the solution? Forms.

Taking a crazy leap here, he’s not talking about representation of criminal defendants, but about civil legal aid. The only problem is that there is no universal right to a free lawyer in civil proceedings, no civil Gideon.  It might have been helpful, honest, had Mayer mentioned what he was talking about, so we can be sure this is what he means.  If he’s talking about indigent representation in criminal prosecutions, then it’s a whole ‘nother level of wrong. But let’s assume he’s not that insane.

Forms. That’s lawyering?  Did someone suggest to Mayer that the primary function of lawyers is to fill out forms, and if we fill out the correct form the right way, that’s all there is to it?

There are, of course, forms involved in lawyering. By forms, I assume he means ministerial work, applications and pro forma forms, like the one to apply for an index number or a general release.  But then, he says there are many forms, thousands, tens of thousands, of forms, which gives rise to the assumption that either he knows about forms with which the  legal world is entirely unfamiliar, or he’s not talking about forms at all.

Does he mean motions?  Does he mean affidavits in support of motions, or memoranda of law?  Those aren’t forms. Whoever told Mayer they were should be shot. Sure, they’re in writing, but not all writings are forms. Forms are the fill in the blank things that any reasonably sentient person can complete.  The other writings are argument, analysis, support, put on paper with the use of letters and a whole lot of thought. Is that what he’s talking about?

Back to the 80%, who Mayer asserts are “eligible for legal aid” though there is no such thing since there is no universal civil legal aid and therefore no “eligibility” for something that doesn’t exist. While the forms are supposedly meant for legal aid lawyers, Mayer leaps the gap and says these forms will end the frustration of pro se litigants by giving them “turbo tax” that will apply to “hundreds of different legal situations,” and half a million people last year used his forms to “solve a legal problem.”

Yes, solve. Fill out forms and legal problems solved.  That’s all there is to it, legal aid lawyers. You fill out forms and legal problems are solved. Bet you didn’t know that. And if only there were enough of you for the 80%, all their problems would be solved by your filling out forms.

But even though Mayer has now come up with the solution to the inability of 80% of the people eligible for legal aid lawyers to obtain representation, he still needs tens of thousand of forms automated. But don’t fear, as he’s come up with a solution to that as well. Law school!  Get all those bored 3Ls who have nothing to do anyway and train them to automate forms!

Not only will law students provide free labor for Mayer’s form automation, but they will learn in the process how to be the Clarence Darrows of forms, which (after all) is the way to solve legal problems. On the flip side, certainly anything produced by law students will solve the legal problems of the poor, because they’re law students and as everyone knows, anything prepared by law students has to be good.

In his favor, John Mayer lacks the panache of our last Legal Rebel, Renee Knake, but he more than makes up for it with his having personally overcome the monumental gap between the legal needs of the rich and poor by law student created forms.

And he looks pretty cool in his Legal Rebel jump suit, too, though I preferred him doing Queen of California.  If I were the ABA Journal, that’s the video I would have used.


12 thoughts on “The Next Best Thing To Legal Aid

    1. SHG Post author

      I imagined you in that jump suit holding that legal rebel flag, filled with pride at being the standard bearer of the future of law. It made me cry.

  1. Dennis Murphy

    CALI is better known for computer based instruction – e.g., learning evidence by watching videos on your computer and hitting a key to make an objection.

    Did you notice how many conferences he’s been to – on his bulletin board? That’s where he doodles his ideas.

    By the way, Legal Aid for criminal is a concept mostly known east of the Hudson. The rest of the country thinks of Legal Aid as civil.

    1. SHG Post author

      It would have been one thing had Mayer promoted the computer based instruction, which has its own issues. But he didn’t. So they don’t have indigent criminal defendants in need of representation anywhere else except here? That’s a relief.

      1. REvers

        The vast, vast majority of Legal Aid organizations are civil only, due to restrictions on spending LSC money on criminal defense. My organization is one of the very few that offers criminal defense, and that’s only because the city pays all the bills, from salary and bennies to office equipment and rent. Even our administrative expenses (processing payroll, insurance and the like) are paid by the city.

  2. Wade

    I was one of those “Legal Aid Lawyers” for five years in Virginia. Our practice was mostly eviction defense, bankruptcy, and (with help from a federal grant) child custody and divorce in cases involving domestic violence. Not one of those areas of law could have been significantly improved by having an automated form software package that did not already exist. Bankruptcy practice already has full software suites available that are almost a requirement for any attorney who does more than a few bankruptcies. Eviction defense was usually litigated in our equivalent of small claims court, so the only pleading might have been a grounds of defense formally outlining the defendant’s reasons why the eviction was improper. The only form involved in child custody was the petition that the petitioner completed at the Court Service Unit with the help of a Court employee. Divorces did use form pleadings, but most of those could be completed using the “find and replace” command in the word processing software.

    There may be a shortage of funding for legal aid lawyers, but I don’t see where a new software program (that does not do anything that Adobe Acrobat or MS Word can’t do) will fill the gap.

    1. SHG Post author

      Wait a second. You mean representing the indigent is not only about forms? How is that possible when John Mayer says forms solve everything?

  3. Pete

    I fear that Mayer will have no trouble recruiting law students to do his bidding. We love panaceas that hold the secrets of being a lawyer – whether they be outlines, flowcharts or “forms”.

    1. SHG Post author

      When I heard that part, I immediately wondered what the law students would get in return. Would they be paid, get credit, what? Then I realized, they will be told they’re getting experience, and likely charged for the pleasure because it will make them “practice-ready.” This means, of course, that only the dumbest law students will do the work.

  4. Carolyn Elefant

    I wonder if anyone has looked at the “big data” of the people who actually use Turbo Tax. My guess is that many of them aren’t poor or lower income but rather, more sophisticated or educated people who use technology frequently and are empowered by these tools. From what I’ve seen in the pro bono work I’ve done and less tech-savvy friends is that they tend to use HR Block and other services where a human does the work for them. Granted, HR Block services are powered by tech – but it’s still human agents who are shepherding people through the process. The point is that even with forms, you still need bodies – and if you’re going to have bodies, they might as well be people who know what they’re doing.

  5. Bea K.

    Whether it’s Legal Aid or the Next Best Thing, if you haven’t got the money, you might as well forget about it and sadly the insurance companies aren’t too much better. We fell behind in our rent (waiting for delayed income tax monies and beneficiary monies from life insurance to finally come through in order to pay some on the back rent that’s due) and was just told that Legal Aid won’t be able to help us, so as usual we’re left flapping in the wind, while our landlord with the ‘illegal dwelling’ gets over once again.

    My heart goes out to tenants like me because from what I’m seeing, incidents such as our are climbing at a huge rate, and once again if you don’t have the money to pay a lawyer you just might end up in a ‘shelter’. The poor continue to lose out while the city, landlords, and others keep on going without batting an eyelash. The rotten Apple and system to supposedly help those who need it the most, will end up throwing them to the wolves instead. Thanks for nothing.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ah, victims. Glad to hear none of your problems have anything to do with you, but you’re the victim of everything. Woe is you.

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