By Kelsea Jeon

Going to law school seemed a bit paradoxical for me. Of course, given that I had not yet gone to law school at the time, I was a non-lawyer. But not only was I a non-lawyer, I also advanced the idea that non-lawyers could — and should — be able to provide legal help to those in need. I worked as a non-lawyer Navigator trained by the New York Courts to provide guidance to self-represented individuals in New York City’s civil courts; I wrote a historical paper about a patriot who sought to abolish the American legal profession in the 1780s; and I published a law review article about how women non-lawyers started legal aid in Boston. Yet here I was, matriculating at Stanford Law.

When I finally shared the news about law school with my mentors and colleagues, most were excited, some intrigued, and still others confused, perhaps even disappointed. It was those in this latter category that stuck with me the most. As non-lawyer access-to-justice champions, they saw me as one of them. So when I shared that I was going to law school, they thought, “We’re losing another one to the ranks.”

Their concern was that I would be indoctrinated by the law and begin to view the access-to-justice crisis from the perspective of a lawyer rather than from the perspective of people on the other side of the law. Yet I stood firmly by my decision; I was convinced that one of the most effective ways to change a system is to change from within. And over a year later, having completed my first year of law school, I still stand by my conviction.

While my previous view of the access-to-justice ecosystem primarily focused on the continuum of legal services — from asynchronous resources to full-scale representation — law school has taught me that the crisis is about much more than the various resources available or unavailable to parties. Rather, it is also about the rules and legal procedures in place that work to disadvantage litigants, regardless of what resources are available.

Take evictions, for instance. How effective is unbundled legal help when the litigant has only three days between receiving the eviction complaint and appearing before the judge for the eviction hearing? Or the possibility of raising a defense in a non-payment proceeding. How can an indigent tenant raise a defense if, procedurally, the rules require them to pay-to-play? That is, the tenant must first deposit the money due to the landlord to raise any defense.

Working on the ground as a non-lawyer and studying the access-to-justice crisis from the perspective of a non-lawyer has given me the gift of viewing the system from the lens of an outsider. But having gone through the infamous 1L year, I realized that part of the key to unlocking the access-to-justice puzzle lies within the law. As for what the exact code is, I’m still trying to figure it out. But I know that finding the answer will require both my non-lawyer and lawyer (to be) perspectives.

Kelsea Jeon is a 2L at Stanford Law, where she is a Civil Justice Fellow in the Rhode Center on the Legal Profession. She is a member of the Legal Services Corporation’s Emerging Leaders Council.

From Non-Lawyer to Law Student: Perspectives on Access to Justice was originally published in Justice Rising on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.