One Law School’s Effort to Resolve Access to Justice

Years ago as a young intellectual property associate, Douglas Sylvester remembers artists and musicians would approach him and ask for pro bono representation on what they felt was a compelling legal case against a competitor or employer.

He can only think of one instance in which he actually took up a pro bono case in his two years at Baker & McKenzie — more often, they lacked a valid legal claim, said Sylvester.

“One of the great skills that all attorneys have — and it’s not one we teach in law schools but is uniform to every area of law — is how to interview potential clients,” he said.

Today, as dean of Arizona State Law School, Sylvester is gearing up to launch a program in the Fall of 2016 that will give law students experience assessing incoming cases while also chipping away at the access-to-justice problem in America.

Although the program has not yet been formally approved by ASU faculty members, Sylvester said that he is confident the program will exist in some fashion, be it part of the school’s curriculum as a required course or as a volunteer externship offered to students.

In an interview on Monday, Sylvester explained the impetus for the program and how it will work when it launches.

He and several faculty members have created the “Arizona Legal Services Center” where ASU students — supervised by faculty members — will meet with potential pro bono clients, interview them about their cases and evaluate their claims. The students then decide whether to refer their case to a lawyer in the state, or break the unfortunate news that the clients don’t have a legitimate avenue for legal action.

“My goal is to have it open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, every week, with enough students and supervising attorneys involved that our doors are open,” said Sylvester. “This is a low cost solution to a big problem in our country — and one that our law schools are in a special position to address.”

The program, which Sylvester believes to be a first in legal education, will only be able to connect Arizona citizens with Arizona lawyers, but Sylvester is hopeful that the ASU model will be adopted on a wide scale basis by law schools throughout the nation.

Making potential clients feel comfortable enough to open up and reveal the essential facts behind the case is difficult, he said. A skilled lawyer is wary of not entering into any attorney-client privilege before officially accepting a case, Sylvester added.

Sylvester said the program would operate under Rule 38 of the Supreme Court of Arizona, which outlines how law students can get involved in pro bono legal matters under the supervision of law professors and lawyers.

One of his main concerns about the program thus far is making sure proper security measures are created so that students can safely participate, he said.

“There needs to be some check,” he said. “It could be the installation of security doors and a receptionist to make sure people aren’t just walking in, to make sure we have a first look at someone before they go in.”