Vincent Morris, co-founder of Arkansas’ innovative legal startup Open Access Law Firm, is one of the Lawyers We Love™. Open Access is one of a new breed of law firms trying to bridge the gap between full legal representation (with those hefty retainers) and the limited pocketbooks of the average American. What’s different about Vincent’s effort is the focus on empowering clients by putting legal technology in their hands.
A self-taught web programmer, Vincent spent a decade building “justice tech” for the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, a collaboration between the state’s two free legal aid programs. He and a partner started their new venture to take that experience directly to the people. His background in legal aid and passion for fairness gave Vincent some full-throated responses to our questions on justice.
#1: What does justice mean?
Vincent Morris: It always surprises me how hard it is to define “justice.” The idea of what is right, wrong and beneficial for a society can differ dramatically between people. So the concept of justice must begin with a “reasonable agreement” among members of a community about what they collectively believe to be right and wrong. From that (often dynamic) common ground, the concept of justice becomes the foundation of a society by codifying these agreed upon rights and wrongs into law. These laws should then provide a consistent understanding of expectations and protections for all people.
Justice is achieved when these agreements (the law, with both its benefits and burdens) are applied in an equal and unbiased way to everyone under the law. Equality, therefore, is a foundational component of justice and the law is a remarkable attempt to make life fair for everyone. This is so important because we all know that life is not fair. Life does not give equal opportunities to all, but true justice demands that the law treat all people as equals and provide equal rights for all.
#2: What is access to justice?
Vincent Morris: Access to justice means the right to have meaningful participation in the legal process regardless of income or privilege. In our current structure, however, it can be very difficult for someone that cannot afford an attorney to navigate the maze of our court system. There is an access-to-justice crisis in the American criminal and civil justice system. In fact, The Rule of Law Index, released by the independent World Justice Project, found that in some categories the U.S. even ranks below some developing nations, such as Botswana and Georgia in our accessibility to justice.
My work with legal aid for over twelve years has been focused on not only increasing pro bono assistance, but also self-help resources that have been used by tens of thousands of Arkansans that cannot afford attorney assistance.
#3: What is the impact on society when everyone has access to justice?
Vincent Morris: The courthouse plays a unique role in our system of democracy because it is the forum where the citizens of our nation can present their grievances against individuals, corporate entities and the government. The courthouse serves as the physical interface for the execution of laws where a party against whom an action is brought — either civil or criminal — typically cannot opt out of the action without potentially serious financial or personal consequences or loss of liberty. If one cannot afford an attorney and one cannot opt out of the system, then self-representation is the only option left.
The first seventeen words of our Constitution — “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice . . .” — did not come with the caveat “for those who can afford it.” Indeed, the denial of meaningful access to justice to a significant segment of our society — those who cannot afford attorneys — is a failure of our profession and of our system of democracy. The impact on society when everyone has access to justice will be nothing less than the fulfillment of the promise of our constitution and equality for all.
That’s a mighty word, and not too much to ask in a just society. This is the kind of advocacy we need and expect from the legal profession.
Here’s an ABA profile of Vincent from 2012:
Vincent has been lauded by the ABA (2012 Legal Rebel award) and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (2014 Equal Justice award), for good and obvious reasons. You can reach Vincent at the Open Access Law Firm or on Twitter @VincentMorris3.
Keep walking the talk, Vincent!