Why it is Critical to Educate Law Students About the Self-Represented Litigant Phenomenon

Why it is Critical to Educate Law Students About the Self-Represented Litigant Phenomenon

Last spring my team of student research assistants and I did some brainstorming about an issue that concerned us all deeply.

How best to both inform and energize law students about the explosion of self-represented litigants and its implications?

How to give law students an understanding of the struggles faced by those with no alternative but to represent themselves because they could not afford counsel (or only a little bit of counsel)?

 How to encourage law students to begin to think practically about what the SRL phenomenon may mean for their own future practice and their practice options?

Our brainstorming accepted the current limitations of our law school curriculum, in which there is little mention made of clients, and even less of self-represented litigants.

Nor is there a class that teaches students about the practical mechanics of different financial structures and billing models – the assumption being that they will all work on a billable hour / retainer/ full representation basis (the traditional model) once they are out in practice.

We also recognized that law students are pretty focused on grades and getting a job that will enable them to start to pay off their student debt. Since law grads are largely uninformed about the realities of the SRL phenomenon, legal practice focused on providing access to justice to this group is not taken seriously as a viable career option.

What do law students need to know?

The NSRLP has important information that we believe law students – and future lawyers – need to know, including:

  • Just how many people now go to court without lawyers, or lose them partway through their legal case
  • How common it is for lawyers to encounter SRLs on the other side of a case, and how to work professionally and constructively with them
  • The business opportunities that this market offers, especially to new lawyers who are unencumbered by assumptions about the traditional model and are open to tapping into a clear need for different types of legal services

 Every Seat Taken

My student team at NSRLP persuaded me that we should offer a one day extra-curricular “certificate workshop” on these questions to Windsor law students in the first few weeks of school (“before everyone gets tired and disillusioned”). To avoid conflicts with other classes, the workshop would be held all-day on a Saturday.

My Dean readily agreed to pay for lunch for student attendees.

In August, we sent out a notice of the date and content of the workshop to our entering class, as well as the 2016/7 2L’s & 3L’s.

Two hours later, the workshop was full – with a 50 plus waitlist.

The Access to Justice and Self-Represented Litigants Certificate Workshop

The final agenda for the workshop included an overview of the original National SRL Study, the CBC documentary “The New Litigants”, playing the SRL Interactive Game, and a panel discussion with two law students (Chantal McCollum from Ottawa U, Sylvia Basso from Osgoode) who were themselves former SRLs. There was also a segment in which the students worked – noisily, passionately, energetically – in small groups on ideas for student projects with SRLs. Gurleen Gill and Lidia Imbrogno, NSRLP research assistants, worked with me on both the agenda development and presenting the workshop.

I have been a law teacher for 35 years this year. I fell in love with the energy, passion, curiosity and intelligence of my students – in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, Canada, the U.S., Hungary, China, Malaysia, and Australia – a long time ago.

But what happened in that classroom on Saturday September 17th is something I shall never forget.

“I’m in 3L. Why didn’t I know this before now?”

For the first few hours, the students listened intently (remember, this is early Saturday morning…) to information about the explosion in the numbers of SRLs, the reasons for self-representation, the obstacles faced by the self-represented and the impact on them, and the challenges for the legal system including judges and lawyers. They looked astonished. We asked if they had questions. They looked shell-shocked.

After lunch, they talked with two former SRLs who were now their peers, students in other law schools. In one case they heard a description of how much money had been spent on legal services before resorting to self-representation. Hands went up around the room.

“Excuse me, did you really just say $….?”

“Do you mind if I ask, how come you didn’t know you were going to be spending this much?” Didn’t you ask?”

Slowly the realization dawned that people just as smart as them found themselves in a place of powerlessness in the hands of a billing system that fractionates everything into minutes, and over which they have no control.

And why, as the other panelist explained, “You don’t hire a lawyer when all you have at stake is $5000.”

At the back of the room one student was struggling to express himself. “But isn’t this unethical and unprofessional?” (Me: “Ummmm”). “I mean if we say that lawyers are offering access to justice?” (I was still stuck about how to answer, but the student continued, spluttering with indignation).

“I’m in 3L. Why didn’t I know this before now?”

Taking the SRL Workshop On the Road

We have begun to consider whether we should take the SRL Certificate Workshop “on the road” to other law schools. It could be offered by a combination of myself and NSRLP’s presentation-experienced and knowledgable student research assistants. All that would be needed to bring the SRL Certificate to your law school would be the expenses of getting our team there and back.

 Are there any law schools out there that might like to take up this offer?


Finally, in case you are in any doubt about the importance of reaching law students with this information, here are a few of the email messages I received after the workshop from attendees.

“It blew me away that in the 1970’s, there were a mere 1% of family cases which included a self-represented litigant, whereas now there are over 80%.” (Igor Vilkhov 1L)

“I was shocked, and I remain shocked, that over 80% of individuals in some family courts are self represented. Not too long ago that number was 1%. It is a clear access to justice issue.” (Khalil Jessa 2L)

“Learning about the SRL experience was very eye-opening.  I believe spreading awareness through workshops like this and getting to collectively brainstorm with my peers about possible solutions to this growing problem will truly fuel change and I am grateful to have been a part of that.” (Nicole Bergil 2L)

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Comments (21)

  • Larry E Doucet

    Not only law students should be inform I say that in high school student should have a class about law so if they ever have to go to court like me no lawyer the RCMP using the taxpayers money to put false chargers against me for cooking oil running on my land from a biodiesel busy behind my house and being wrongfully convicted by the wrong doing of others no lawyer the ones responsible sure had a field day me having to go to court with no lawyer two days in court.
    These outlaws lied for two days,I was told by the crown attorney I was guilty half way of the trial,how many Canadians citizens have gotten a criminal record for the wrong doing of others I was kicked out of my house jailed for three weeks for the wrong doing of others.
    The crown new it the judge also it’s all about money,if you got none or like me they wanted for me two give them my small pension check which I needed to live on so the RCMP were charging me for like taking shrubs of my driveway after I had it surveyed twice all kinds of things like this,the were helping the crook me alone on my land it was like the old Wild West they my neighbours were working on the land of the Royal bank which I notified them of what my neighbours were doing for this I got kick out of my house robbed by the justice system of about 100,000$ dollars an now I’m told to go along with my life and forget obout it.
    I’m still paying for it now they taking my hunting rights away what a crooked justice system we got when one side can use the taxpayers money to find innocent people guilty I like to know how many have been caught like this the morning of my trail looking out the window I could see the RCMP talking to these outlaws probably laughing because I didn’t have a lawyers then when I wouldn’t hire one they the judge tried to tell me I was crazy because I wouldn’t give his buddies money like I’d say 10,000$ it’s a circle of crooked who are playing games with the ones that can’t afford a lawyer,I was told to apply for a special certificate by one judge I was refused twice because the one in the legal aid was my lawyer for about fifteen minutes and spoke of some wrongdoing of my neighbours of course he wasn’t going to grant me one I’m telling you it’s all about money today if you got none your guilty if you got lots your laughing.
    It’s a disgrace just like the soap opera we seen on TV of the senators us Canadians we are suppose to be stupid I think sometimes if your poor in Canada your like the Jews in the Second World War.

    September 30, 2016 at 11:45 am
  • Mel Knight

    Frankly Lawyers are lawyers for the most part all have one common goal To make as much money in the shortest period of time with the least amount of effort. When a self represented litigant is involved they use that as an excuse to delay the matter, to confuse the the matter (issues) and escalate the financial gain…

    September 30, 2016 at 3:14 pm
    • Larry E Doucet

      You can say that again I bough a house to live in peace to find out I’ve been robbed of my house by a corrup justice system money first and justice after I gave 1,500$ to a lawyer to represent me I just gave him the money for doing hardly anything I could see what was going on the judge wanted me to borrow my pension check that I needed to live on,they the judge,the crown and the RCMP sure new how to play the game.
      This lawyer I hired for 7,000$ got you off for being drunk but I was told the going rate now for being drunk is 10,000$ my buddies that got caugh told me the lawyer told them not to laugh when the judge announce the verdict I had to get me a computer at great cost I just found out that in the charter of rights I believe 11d your are suppose to have a fair trial not for the poor hand it speaks on how the politicians cannot interfere and another thing I found out the judge is immune from prosecution they want you to stay wrongly convicted for sure there only dictators and people like hitler that had this right they got there backs all covered it the biggest money racket going,we seen the trial of the senators and how the taxpayers money gets these politicians out of trouble well if there anyway that you can help me get a fair trial please tell me further more a couple of days after my kangaroo trial I seen in our local paper he was made a Supreme Court judge these people are what I call phycopath all they want is a fast dollar they don’t care who they walk on to get it.
      I could type all day of what they done to me torture harrasement ad was very tormented making complaints to the RCMP complaint board didn’t work they contradicted all complaints by the QC lawyers while I found out they the
      RCMP complaint biad got none with no money they got you where they want and there getting away with a lot of trials like this I call this a dictatorship a system that design for the very rich I was told by the mayor of my town. The proof is all there of what they done my friend couldn’t believe of what they done very dangerous system indeed. Larry

      October 2, 2016 at 1:37 pm
    • tom tupper

      there are good lawyers and bad lawyers-they choose a generally high paying job so do want lots of money.but if they get it by fraud then you are right-who knows what % of lawyers are not honorable and get rich cheating.but there is fraud in all other types of jobs as well.dont you know the earth is hell.

      October 3, 2016 at 7:03 am
  • Derek Parry

    While now forced to the side-lines by illness, as an ex-SRL it was exciting and delightful to read of continued progress by Windsor Law and the NSRLP. Thank you for continuing the struggle. I am relieved to read that the student’s responses encourage and energize you, for I continue to fear that this project will peter out before fulfilling its objectives, and that would perpetuate thousands of lives being denigrated and even destroyed each year by the failure of our ‘justice’ system.
    Is there a way that interested people could help to finance the NSRLP? I don’t have any large sums available now – I’m an ex-SRL – but I would still like to help with a monthly or yearly contribution.

    September 30, 2016 at 3:25 pm
    • nsrlp

      Hi Derek,

      That is very kind. Please email us at representingyourself@gmail.com. We’d love to talk about this.


      October 3, 2016 at 1:07 pm
    • nsrlp

      Derek it is so good to hear from you. I do hope you are doing well (this is Julie). NSRLP has actually just received a philanthropic donation from a former SRL and family. We are using this to hire a new Project Coordinator. And starting January 2017, Nikki Gersbain is working on a fundraising campaign with us to try to put NSRLP into a secure financial position so we can continue to advocate for and assist SRLs into the future. More news coming soon. Take good care.

      October 8, 2016 at 12:51 am
  • Joel Miller

    What a great idea. We need to start with students asking why the family law self-rep is so severely underserved – or not really served at all – to provoke lawyers and the Law Society into asking the same quesiton. But the curriculum outlined above seemed to stop short at showing students actual for-profit business models to provide services in innovative ways, by rethinking what we offer, how we provide it, and how to charge for it. Creative thinking allowed by limited scope retainers should be opening up imaginative, non-traditional, practice options, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet. Shouldn’t the Certificate Workshop add practical examples by practitioners to brainstorming by students?

    Through The Family Law Coach I’m offering affordable, fixed fee, services remotely, with an à la carte menu of service products, and a money back guarantee. These include coaching, strategic analysis, drafting assistance, helping both written and spoken presentations, and giving legal advice – but not providing face to face meetings, court attendances, or dealing with other lawyers. All of this is designed to get the self-rep at least some assistance to help level the playing field.

    This is one non-traditional service model that can be discussed with students and offered by any practicing lawyer. There are fresh business models available and being offered in a few places throughout North America. I urge the Workshop to include examples of what’s actually being done for self-reps, along with thinking about what could be done.

    Joel Miller (www.thefamilylawcoach.com)

    September 30, 2016 at 4:24 pm
  • Nelum

    That is not true. There are exceptional lawyers who think beyond money.

    September 30, 2016 at 4:52 pm
  • Karin Litzcke

    The question is really what Julie’s duty is in her role as professor, and it is to the students, not to SRLs. She cannot groom and recruit them to be crusaders, no matter how engaged she is in the matter herself, but is bound to inform them in such a way that it serves what the school of law undertakes to do in return for the tuition paid, which is to teach these young people how to be lawyers, ideally successful ones. There is nothing wrong with earning a living, not even with earning a good one, and these kids should not be emerging from law school burdened with a guilty conscience about things their predecessors have done or not done, nor with missionary zeal about changing the world. Having been burdened with that myself (in a different educational setting) and having talked with a lot of young people bound in that mindset from the public schools, I am here to say it can be very self-destructive.

    They should most certainly be learning about the legal marketplace, including its challenges and opportunities, and insight from various types of law consumers would be a very cool perspective to offer them. But why not make this from a diversity of legal consumers, not just SRLs, who are, after all, not technically legal consumers? To a large degree we represent a market opportunity as an under-served segment, and what law students deserve to know about that is the occupational infrastructure and pricing mechanism that prohibits this segment from being served at a reasonable price (the billable hour, for instance, is a fairly recent phenomenon). The emphasis should be on allowing them to form their own opinions of whether this is a market they would like to find a way to serve, and an understanding of what it would take to do so. A line-up of clients can range from the SRL who has phoned a hundred lawyers without success, to the in-house legal counsel of a large corporation who hires 5 lawyers a week.

    I am beginning to think, too, that we may all becoming a bit too habituated to regarding SRLs as a situation of pure victimhood. In truth, it is like being DIY in any field, where the difficulty of learning new skills is offset to a degree by the freedom to work on your own terms and the personal growth achieved by doing so. For example, the fact that self-representation is even possible means that your decision to go to court does not have to be filtered through a lawyer, nor does anyone have the power to prevent you from bringing forward the arguments you feel most strongly about. I’ve met SRLs who won points in court that several legal advisors had advised them to drop.

    And it is only fair to acknowledge that many judges are making an effort to be both courteous and fair to SRLs. That will change further by the time these young people are in practice. It is only fair to these law students, therefore, to inform them about this rapidly changing portion of the legal arena.

    September 30, 2016 at 8:02 pm
    • Larry E Doucet

      What about the people that are wrongfully convicted and can’t afford a lawyer I bet there are thousands in Canada I’ve seen personally sone of the wrongfull convicted are a 100 times more honest then the crooks I’ve seen in our courthouses bring our courthouse back to the people and out of the hands of bullies which I see in our courthouses and stop using the taxpayers money to convict innocent people that can’t afford a lawyer and are walk over by greed I had my house stolen that getting real bad and I also had an RCMP lie under oath and the ones responsible weren’t even in the courthouse quite a crooked system if you got no money with our courts its money first and justice after I call what I went through a real communist system whom money comes first,Larry

      October 3, 2016 at 2:19 pm
    • nsrlp

      I agree that there are some important figures in the Bar and the Judiciary who can model for law students. These individuals are champions for NSRLP and we appreciate them greatly.

      But just to clarify. I understand my duty as being towards the public, first and foremost. Where that coincides with the goals of the law school – the best among many – that I work at (and which signficantly supports my work), that is wonderful but I am not in any conflict here – my first duty is to the public because (1) this is a publicly funded law school and (2) law should be first and foremost a public service.

      I also want to make sure that those who read these comments understand that our entering law students understand themselves to be training to be lawyers in order to serve the public. It is my first responsibility as a legal educator to maintain and reinforce that commitment, and I intend to continue to do so.

      October 8, 2016 at 12:58 am
      • twechar

        Bravo Julie!

        October 8, 2016 at 1:04 am
      • Karin Litzcke

        Julie, it may be foolhardy to pick a fight with a law professor :-), but what are the implications in law if that position is extended to every faculty member at every public university being able to take it on themselves to formulate their teaching based on their personal conception of what constitutes public service and value to the public? How are the tenets of contract law, consumer law, and the doctrine of ministerial responsibility exercised if faculty members have a direct duty to the public?

        Academic freedom supports doing research based on individual preference; documenting, and analyzing matters that appear to the researcher to be a matter of public interest. But the teaching responsibilities appear to me to be governed by a different set of rules, grounded in the basis on which money changes hands.

        October 10, 2016 at 8:58 pm
        • nsrlp

          So far at least (36 years and counting) no one has asked for their money back 🙂

          October 11, 2016 at 2:57 pm
      • Karin Litzcke

        I’m not saying it would have happened or should happen, but it is difficult to see how the public could ask for its money back if it is dissatisfied with how law professors train lawyers.

        October 11, 2016 at 4:34 pm
  • twechar

    I believe that both of you are correct but it depends on the areas of practice;

    a) Civil litigation Lawyers are just about the Money
    b) Family lawyers are more compassionate about the effect on children,egregious acts of low-life Fathers (or Mothers) who run away from their responsibilities etc.They have more empathy because most are parents or spouses themselves and can relate.
    c) Criminal lawyers appear to care about achieving justice and the rights of their clients and money is a by-product derived from the profile of their client or the cause of action.Reputation and media coverage seems to drive their goals and money comes automatically depending on their success rate.

    Civil litigation lawyers are the lowest when it comes to honesty and ethics.

    October 1, 2016 at 11:59 am
  • Lynn

    This program would be very useful for paralegals.

    October 1, 2016 at 2:59 pm
    • Larry E Doucet

      How can you a howmever is reading this 100,000$ to pay of a bunch of rapist in The RCMP and judges whom are immune from prosecution,lawyers that do crooked thing to gain more wealth,while I was kick out of my own home because I wouldn’t give a lawyer my pension that I needed to live on,because of the wrongdoing of others a dictatorship and money racket the world have ever seen the ones in the Justice system clearing themselfs of wrongdoing explain to me all this before you go to far?

      October 9, 2016 at 12:29 pm
  • Larrydoucet46@gmail.com

    The courts don’t care about you if you got no money your just like a Jews in the Second World War ask me I lost my house 1000,000$ and nobody cared they wanted my pension that I needed to live on I had to go to court two days,the ones responsible weren’t even in the courthouse it’s a big money rackets and a big circle which includes the RCMP the crown and the judge they all got there backs covered if your wrongfully convicted they want to make sure it stays that way.
    Instead of having all this stuff your putting online study my case you’ll know what I mean.
    Larry EvDoucet

    October 11, 2016 at 6:49 pm

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