VIRGINIA ACCESS TO JUSTICE
A website by David Neumeyer with information, resources and recommendations to
increase access to justice for ALL Virginians
The mission of the Virginia State Bar is to protect the public, regulate the legal profession of Virginia, advance access to legal services, and assist in improving the legal profession and the judicial system. The bar staff does an excellent job of protecting the public and regulating the profession; principal roles of the bar president are therefore advancing access to legal services and helping to improve the profession and the system.
I built this website in 2020 as part of my campaign for VSB president-elect. My primary concerns in running for the office were that access to legal services, i.e. justice, does not exist for all Virginians; that access is declining for most rural residents as the number of rural lawyers declines; and that all bar members need to respond to the changing nature of law practice. I was not elected, but I am still working on these issues, and this website helps me share information about them.
Much has been done, but much needs to be done. Please share your comments and work with me to improve access to justice in Virginia. Thank you for what you already do.
PROVIDING REPRESENTATION OR USEFUL INFORMATION TO ALL WHO NEED IT
86 percent of the civil legal problems of low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help, and only 1% of cases in General District Court, where most cases are handled, have an attorney on both sides. Litigants represented by counsel are in general twice as likely to receive a positive outcome as those who are not.
To remedy this gap, every Virginia lawyer needs to know and respond to Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct by providing pro bono assistance; the number of active VSB members reporting pro bono work in a year is less than a third of the national average, but the number of hours each reporting Virginia lawyer provides is about twice the national average. Virginia lawyers excel when they get involved. Self-help resources such as the Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission self-help website also need expansion.
For ways to get started, see the VSB's list of pro bono resources including JusticeServer and Virginia Free Legal Answers, the VBA Pro Bono Council 2020 report, and Greater Richmond Bar Foundation opportunities
REVERSING THE DECLINING NUMBER OF RURAL LAWYERS
The number of rural lawyers in the U.S. has declined significantly over the last ten years, and Virginia has been no exception. A 2018 pro bono drive in rural counties by Virginia Legal Aid Society found fewer attorneys present, and many of those were prosecutors and defenders prohibited from pro bono work. The problem has been documented by the New York Times, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, the Pew Charitable Trusts, NPR, blogs, and most recently, the ABA.
Other states have studied the problem and implemented remedies such as fellowships and incubators that train new lawyers in the business skills and areas of law necessary to start a solo or small practice. We in Virginia have not taken any of these steps, and one reason may be that the VSB has had only one president from west of Richmond, George Shanks of Luray, in the last twenty years. It is time to act before rural residents are able to obtain legal help only in cities. A related problem is lack of attorneys in low-income sections of urban areas. The VSB needs a special committee to study the problem of "legal deserts" in Virginia and report with recommendations.
RESPONDING TO THE CHANGING NATURE OF LAW PRACTICE
If the pandemic has taught us anything about law practice, it is that change is constant and occurs in unexpected ways. The rate of change is most visible in changing work environments now that some courts routinely conduct hearings and even trials remotely while others implement mask requirements and social distancing, and many clients, lawyers and staff members work from home. Changing security challenges, technology and business structures have significant impacts.
It is a primary responsibility of bar and firm leadership to ensure that we are protecting our clients, our colleagues and our employees. To this end, bar leaders must communicate frequently on upcoming news and issues; one of my core values is the importance of frequent communication, and I did this in my six-year tenure on Bar Council by emailing attorneys in my circuit with my analysis, links to materials, and request for comment on the agenda of each upcoming Council meeting. I seek to provide frequent and helpful communication to VSB members and others on all of the work of the State Bar to which I am connected.
Other sources of important information about change include the 2019 final report of the VSB Special Committee on the Future of Law Practice. It contains important analysis and recommendations that need to be studied and implemented by all of us. To help lawyers, especially those in small firms, through change, at least eleven unified bars like Virginia's offer practice management assistance, and the Virginia State Bar Practice Management Task Force has recommended in a November 2021 special report that the VSB should create a Practice Management Advisor position on the VSB staff to help Virginia lawyers. Other valuable sources for me include the writings and podcasts of Robert Ambrogi, a lawyer and journalist who writes the blog LawSites and produces the podcasts LawNext and Legaltech Week; I recommend these to all bar members.