There’s been a disturbing justice gap in the U.S. for decades. The legal profession has responded by encouraging pro bono legal services to low-income Americans, allowing the “unbundling” of legal services into smaller pieces, utilizing technology to reach more people and exploring efficiencies in the delivery of legal services. Most of these approaches assume people aren’t using lawyers for their civil legal needs because they’re too expensive. But cost is not the only reason for the justice gap.

As we try innovating our way out of this situation, perhaps we should adopt a design or jobs theory mindset. This would entail answering the question: how can this service make consumers’ lives better?

I got the idea for this post from reading “When Coffee and Kale Compete” by Alan Klement. The book focuses on entrepreneurs seeking to make products people will buy. Applying the theory of Klement to legal services wouldn’t just entail making the current legal service delivery more efficient. It would also involve creating and delivering different products and services.

The Cost of Legal Services and the Justice Gap

The most recent Legal Services Corporation report shows that 86% of the civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. In addition, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the prior year. This includes problems with health care, housing conditions, disability access, veteran’s benefits and domestic violence.

Other research documents the fact that low to moderate income Americans don’t retain lawyers to assist with their justice problems. Notably, American Bar Foundation Fellow Rebecca Sandefur’s research has shown that as many as half of American households confront problems that raise civil legal issues, such as those affecting their livelihood, shelter, neighborhood safety, environmental conditions and the care and custody of minor children. These problems can cause dire consequences: people can lose their homes, jobs, custody of their children, or access to insurance, benefits or pensions. Although these issues potentially have remedies under civil law, most never involve contact with an attorney or a court. Why?

Affordability is one reason, but not necessarily the only or determinate reason. Many people seek help, but don’t think of their problem as requiring a lawyer. Other research by Sandefur shows that of those who didn’t seek a lawyer for help with their problems, only 6% cited cost as the reason.

As I’ve written before, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates that individual consumers are spending less money on legal services as the price rises.  However, as Bill Henderson, Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, explains, legal services are losing “wallet share” to other consumer spending. The costs of medical expenses and college tuition, for example, have increased over time on the Consumer Price Index at a faster rate than the cost of legal services. Yet, consumers are willing to spend their money there and not on legal services. Clearly cost alone isn’t the reason for dropping demand. Can a marketing approach help here?

The “Jobs To Be Done” Theory

Most people are likely familiar with the theory from Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christiansen and the idea that individuals have jobs to do. The innovator should figure out the job of the consumer, and then create products or services the customer will buy.

In “When Coffee and Kale Compete,” Klement puts a twist on the Jobs to be Done (JTBD) approach and frames the question of innovation success in terms of self-betterment. In Klement’s approach, JTBD is not an activity or a task. It describes a personal improvement. It answers the questions: “How are you better since you started using this product or service?” “What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?” He argues that customers value the progress a service may deliver, not the service itself.

Klement also discusses the forces that generate or detract from demand. Demand is generated by a combination of push and pull forces. People are pushed to change only when circumstances make them unhappy with the way things are. What they change to depends on the pull factors, i.e., what’s directing that motivation to change. The entrepreneur’s challenge is to identify what about the status quo is making people unhappy and then pull them toward your solution.

At the same time, demand may be reduced by anxiety or inertia. Anxiety derives from the unknown; if we don’t know if a product or service can help us get the job done—or can deliver progress. These anxieties drive away first-time customers and can make existing customers uneasy about continuing to use the product or service. Inertia is a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. These are mostly habits. Understanding customers’ habits plays an important role in our ability to offer innovations.

Applying JTBD Theory to Law

How do Klement’s theories apply to legal services?

Consumers seem to be experiencing neither a push nor a pull toward legal services. Are lawyers creating a pull by delivering products or services that help consumers become a better version of themselves?  Where’s the product or service that makes the law accessible to the general consumer in order to better their life?

Demand is actually dropping. It seems that consumers of legal services are eschewing lawyers. They’re seeking answers to their problems from family members, their social network or online services. In Sandefur’s research, a large group who didn’t seek out lawyers for their justice problems decided to handle their problems on their own or with a third party (13%). Klement’s self-betterment theory would say this is because they want to be empowered to help themselves, not told they need to go to a lawyer to be instructed.

What comes to mind as possible levers pulling demand would be legal checkups (similar to medical checkups), legal insurance and other proactive measures to help consumers. There’s been some recent progress in these areas, but lawyers could do more to create a pull toward their expertise and services on this front.

The forces undermining demand—anxiety and inertia—are prevalent in the legal field. In Sandefur’s research, would-be consumers of legal services cited resignation (27%) as well as fear and “not wanting to make trouble” (4%) as reasons they didn’t seek out lawyers. This sounds like the inertia and anxiety detractors from demand. What could lawyers be doing to reduce these constraints?

Creating products and services consumers can use to better themselves may be a new role for lawyers. Consider how Jeff Bezos’s advice may apply to re-envisioning the possibilities in the legal marketplace:

“Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.

No customer ever asked Amazon to create Prime membership program, but it sure turns out that they wanted it, and I could give you any such examples.”

The impact that law can have on bettering the lives of customers is much more than providing delight. If innovation is about helping customers make progress toward a better life, there is no better vehicle than the law. The law can provide consumers physical, emotional and financial security, reduce stress, resolve disputes and so much more. The possibilities abound.