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When Russell Engler was in law school, he never heard the term “access to justice.” All he wanted was to help poor and disenfranchised people looking for critical legal services.

Today, access to justice—the movement to make sure people get the legal help they need, regardless of their income—is a vital human rights issue. And Engler’s on the front lines.

It wasn’t a particular case that made Russell Engler mad. It was all of them, the sheer deluge.

Case after case after case involved clients desperate for legal help. He asked himself: “Is this really how the legal system works?”

Engler was still in law school then, working on these real-world cases through a clinical program. What he saw in the clinics “energized” him to take action.

“I showed up at law school honestly not really sure why I was there. What saved me were my clinics,” Engler says. “I could see myself using legal skills to help people and give them power.”

Today, Engler empowers the disenfranchised in a variety of ways. A nationally recognized expert in access to justice, he works with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and other organizations and committees to devise and advocate for solutions like civil right to counsel in eviction cases, more “virtual” court services, relaxed courtroom cellphone bans, and other ways to break down barriers to legal services.

As Director of Clinical Programs at New England Law | Boston, where he has worked for more than 25 years, he also guides law students in providing legal help to underserved communities. Just like the clinical work that started him on his path in the access to justice movement…

What is Access to Justice?

“In this country, poor people usually have had to go to court without help in civil cases,” Engler says. “The access to justice push is to make the courts and administrative agencies fairer for people who can't afford lawyers.”

The most vulnerable populations are often the ones who need legal help the most—and struggle most to get it. Think survivors of domestic violence trying to get away from their abuser, people facing eviction or the loss of important government subsidies, the elderly or disabled living on fixed incomes. Their only hope for legal help is from volunteer lawyers or government-funded legal services offices. But these government-funded programs don’t even come close to meeting the demand, Engler says.

“What you then see in the courts is the vast majority of people in these cases having to navigate the system without a lawyer, and they invariably lose their cases shockingly quickly,” Engler says. “Only a small percentage of people get help from these few lawyers, and it can make all the difference in the world.”

The access to justice movement tries to address these problems in myriad ways; some examples include:

  • Simplifying court proceedings and developing technological tools to help people navigate the legal system (and avoid going to court, if possible)
  • Training judges, court-connected mediators, and clerks so they understand ways they may help litigants and remain neutral
  • Developing an array of assistance programs, inside and outside the courthouse, such as self-help centers, lawyer-for-the-day programs, and clinics to teach people how to handle their own cases

But despite the breadth and variety of access to justice initiatives, it’s often not enough. Engler insists that in some situations what is at stake is so important and the playing field is so unbalanced that nothing short of a right to representation by a lawyer stands a chance of providing meaningful access to justice.

The famous 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright began to make the right to counsel a reality in criminal cases. But there’s no equivalent on the civil side of the law. That is why many of the initiatives Engler works on focus directly on the need to create a civil right to counsel in critical areas where the right does not currently exist.

People having to navigate the system without a lawyer...invariably lose their cases shockingly quickly. Only a small percentage of people get help from these few lawyers, and it can make all the difference in the world.

From Law School to the Real World

Engler didn’t intend to become a lawyer. He didn’t even want to go to law school. What he wanted was to help people.

“I was a history major in college,” he says. “All the other history majors seemed to be going to law school, so I applied.” After deferring his acceptance and spending a year in Washington, D.C., Engler found himself at Harvard Law School.

During most of his classes, Engler was appalled at the focus on corporations and rich clients; he struggled to see how what he was being taught was relevant to the help most people needed. It wasn’t until he spent a summer doing legal services work and most of his third year of law school doing clinic work representing indigent clients that he saw how powerful a lawyer’s help can be.

“We’re taught all the time that the legal system is supposed to be the one place where the scales of justice are balanced. Everybody is supposed to get a fair shake, regardless of your background, regardless of your means. And that was just absolutely untrue in the world I saw,” he says. “Disproportionately poor people, women, and people of color were getting steamrolled by the regular court processes in family law, in eviction cases, and other important cases.”

Wanting to continue in public interest law, Engler took a job in legal services in Brooklyn, New York, after graduation and a judicial clerkship. He spent nine years in a housing unit handling civil cases. Engler loved the job, but he opted to accept the Director of Clinical Programs position at New England Law, drawn to the position both for the work and because he and his wife, Tracy Miller, wanted to raise their family in the area.

“It was a big change, going from practice to teaching—but also a smaller change than you would think,” he says. “I get to run a legal services office that has a dual mission of serving clients and teaching students to practice law. I get to still be in legal services; I get to embrace and be responsible for the parts of the legal education that mean the most to me.”

Engler also manages New England Law’s Public Interest Law concentration and directs the Public Service Project through the school’s Center for Law and Social Responsibility. (Notably, New England Law was ranked a top school for public interest law by National Jurist in 2018.)

I get to run a legal services office that has a dual mission of serving clients and teaching students to practice law...I get to embrace and be responsible for the parts of the legal education that mean the most to me.

For years, Engler has been working on access to justice initiatives outside New England Law too: He’s contributed to legislation to create a right to counsel in Massachusetts for those facing eviction, worked with advocates trying to create a right to counsel for detained immigrants facing removal, helped draft briefs to expand the right to counsel in other civil cases, and published numerous law review articles on the topic.

For over five years, Engler served on the Boston Bar Association Task Force Expanding the Civil Right to Counsel and helped author the Task Force’s two major reports. He currently serves on the Steering Committee of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. Frequently asked to share his expertise, he was recently invited to the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession for a special convening regarding regulatory reform and access to justice.

All of his advocacy work—being in touch with what’s going on in the “real world”—makes him a better educator and clinic director at New England Law, Engler says.

“I've ended up concluding that, for me, the best thing I can do is be out and about in the community and make all the connections that I can,” he says. “I just opened up a brand-new placement for people doing anti-foreclosure work, and it was because I have connections to the supervising lawyers through my access to justice work.”

Working in Access to Justice Today

Engler says he’s noticed a positive shift in access to justice over the last 25 years. Now, more than 40 states have access to justice commissions, and attitudes within the legal system are changing.

“Courts are recognizing that the people are the consumers and they had better be ready to serve the consumers,” he says. “How should the courthouse be set up? Should there be assistance programs? Should there be self-help centers? Should we allow lawyers to come in for just a little piece of the case instead of the whole case if that means more people will get some help?”

The connection between access to justice and civil right to counsel is a critical aspect of the work Engler does with the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission, a national leader in the access to justice space. Some of the issues on their radar include:

  • Changes to courthouses cellphone bans that keep litigants—whose world is often on their phones, including connections to their children and jobs—from accessing their phones
  • Providing more “virtual” court services centers, which would allow Massachusetts residents to access services all over the state, instead of in the few courthouses that have them currently
  • Proposed legislation to create a right to counsel in eviction cases (The Commission adopted a resolution supporting the principles underlying that legislation.)
  • Initiatives in the consumer debt and housing areas involving “upstream” interventions: efforts that included collaborations between lawyers and community groups to help people solve their underlying legal problems before they mushroom into court proceedings

Despite these developments, Engler says he wonders if access to justice efforts are going in the right direction.

“Are people still getting horrible results and losing their housing and becoming homeless, even though they had defenses that should have kept them in?” he says. “Are people still at the mercy of their controlling batterer, because the court didn't step up well enough? And those are tricky issues, because a lot of what shows up in the legal system flows from inequality, and barriers and hardships in the world outside. That shouldn't surprise anybody.”

Though the work can be frustrating, Engler says folks may be surprised by how much there is to gain from a career in public interest law.

“There's a lot of literature and empirical work that people who are happiest in their life are people who have found something they care about. It doesn't just have to be a cause, but for me it is,” he says. “Of course I get frustrated at times. But when I get frustrated, it makes me want to figure out another way to attack the problem—not to give up and go do something I care about less.”

Of course I get frustrated at times. But it makes me want to figure out another way to attack the problem—not to give up and go do something I care about less.

Training the Next Generation

Though he oversees 16 clinics and externships (which attract the vast majority of New England Law’s students), Engler takes a remarkably hands-on approach to training the next generation of civic-minded legal professionals. And it shows.

“Professor Engler’s Public Interest Law Seminar was one of the best and most engaging classes I have taken during my time at the law school. I was able to learn more about the important work and social issues public interest attorneys face,” says 2018 grad Stephanie Naranjo, one of the thousands of lawyers Engler has helped usher into the profession.

“For many, many, students, their eyes are opened by how important it is that clients have access to help,” Engler says. “A lot of students are stunned by how unfair the legal system is when you walk in the shoes of somebody without power and trying to navigate it.”

Law students and professionals interested in doing more access to justice work can learn from Engler’s years working in this rewarding, challenging field. His top tip? Remember that effecting change is a marathon, not a sprint.

“I think the people who burn out really quickly are people who probably expect a burst of energy to achieve lasting change, and then you can move onto something else. That's just not how the world works,” he says. “It's not that I don't get frustrated with the slow pace of change, but I think the constant struggle, learning and development of new strategies and approaches are important.

“However frustrating things might get for me personally, it's nothing compared to the challenges facing the clients who are struggling day-in and day-out. I am very lucky to have been able to dedicate my legal career trying to help even a little bit.”

Learn more about Professor Russell Engler and his access to justice work.