Stereotypes Hold Us Back: Challenging Our Assumptions about A2J with Real DataNSRLP
A deeply shocking blog written by a former lawyer on the subject of “Licensed Legal Technicians” (a pilot program in some US states) crossed my screen earlier this week.
Shocking because the premise of the blog is that many low-income people are “venal” scammers, “pathological liars” pretending to be poor when really they have greater resources, and generally “difficult to represent.”
The author (Shannon Achimalbe) continues, “They have unrealistic demands. They refuse to pay unless a certain outcome is guaranteed. …(E)ven if you achieve it, most likely they won’t pay anyway.”
The nicest thing Achimalbe says about low-income people is to acknowledge that “(A) few just have terrible life circumstances.”
If you have the stomach to read this outpouring of vitriol against the poor, the blog can be accessed at http://abovethelaw.com/2015/01/nonlawyer-legal-technicians-access-to-justice-or-will-they-make-things-worse/
Achimalbe’s is a particularly vicious attack, but in extreme form it reflects much more widely held and articulated stereotypes that we confront every day.
Much of our work at NSRLP over the last 3 years has been about providing perspective and debunking simplistic and inaccurate stereotypes.
Unpacking our stereotypes requires drilling down to our underlying assumptions, and then questioning these.
Do these assumptions fit with the information we have? Do they still make sense when we inform ourselves better? Or do they look naïve, inaccurate, and unfair?
How do we develop stereotypes?
Of course we all have many stereotypes – whether as a result of how we grow up, the influences around us, the type of work we do, or our life experiences. Resorting to simple stereotypes can be the most natural – if misleading – way for us to organize a complex and constantly changing world.
Social psychologists and conflict theorists have a variety of ways of explaining this process.
Often unconsciously, we tend to “crop” and filter the information and experiences we have to fit our existing biases and assumptions. We apply an “identity frame” that supports our pre-existing assumptions.
We use “selective framing” to focus on only the data that seems to be consistent with what we already believe.
We apply “attribution bias” to reinforce our stereotypes – in the absence of other information we tend to assume the worst (motivations, intentions) about those outside our social “group”, while we afford those inside our “group” the benefit of the doubt/ best interpretation of their actions.
Throughout, we seek to reduce our cognitive dissonance – in other words, we avoid questioning or upturning our pre-conceived notions. It is far more comfortable just to go on thinking the way we already do, and seeing only those things that reinforce that.
This is also why we struggle with our stereotypes about SRLs.
What are the most often repeated stereotypes about SRLs?
- SRLs prefer to represent themselves than be represented by counsel
- Many SRLs are crazy, demonstrated by their extraordinary fixation on the details of their case
- SRLs are unable to participate responsibly in the legal system because they are not lawyers
What are the assumptions behind each of these stereotypes?
- A preference for self-representation over representation by counsel assumes that a choice is being made. If this is a rational choice, there is a further assumption that this is based on their assessment of their own abilities and competence to represent themselves.
The reality: Almost all SRLs say they would greatly prefer to be represented by legal counsel than to represent themselves. But they do not have a genuine choice because they cannot afford to pay – or to continue to pay – for a lawyer. Almost all SRLs describe the legal process as intimidating, stressful and vastly more difficult to navigate than they imagined.
- Obsession with one’s case is a pathological condition that is evidence of mental instability
The reality: If you are acting on your own in an unfamiliar and sometimes overwhelming system to attempt to (e.g.) retain access to your children, it is hardly surprising that you would focus as much energy as you possibly could on this.
- Non-lawyers cannot be partners with lawyers and judges in the justice system because they cannot be part of its sub-culture. Only those with legal training can truly understand how the legal system works.
The reality: SRLs now constitute more than half of those in family court and approaching 40% in many civil courts. Many spend a great deal of time learning the rules and are well-informed and carefully prepared.
Is there anything to these stereotypes?
Stereotypes are sometimes founded on some element of (exaggerated, distorted) reality.
The self-representation is a choice stereotype? A relatively small percentage – 14% – of those in the National SRL Study (2013) did not seek the assistance of a lawyer, either pro bono or for cost, at any time. However many of these individuals explained this by saying that said that they assumed that they could easily handle their matter (eg in small claims court) and that the cost of a lawyer would be larger than the amount at stake.
The SRLs are crazy obsessive people stereotype? Research (eg Pleasance & Balmer, 2009) shows that people with mental health issues are more likely to experience family conflicts, discrimination at work, poverty-related stress, making them more likely to be involved in rights conflicts than others without this pre-existing disability. This is not the same as an individual becoming very focused on an important matter that they are working on without adequate assistance, and it is also should not be conflated with the mental health consequences of self-representation, which we have written about often in this blog (for example, https://representingyourselfcanada.com/2014/01/28/querulous-litigants-or-distressed-citizens-who-are-we-to-judge/).
The intrusive outsider stereotype? Most SRLs would agree that they need all the help they can get from system insiders. And they would like a great deal more. Without legal training, it is very challenging to navigate the justice system.
Even at their best, these and other stereotypes are gross generalizations. At worst, these are founded on inaccurate underlying assumptions.
Critical to any effort to get behind our own assumptions is more data and data sources, and at NSRLP we shall continue to try to provide this on the subject of the SRL Phenomenon. Challenging our stereotypes is a critical first step to coming to terms with the challenges of the SRL phenomenon.