Document Type

Working Paper

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Nonlawyer advocates are one proposed solution to the access to justice crisis and are currently permitted to practice in some civil justice settings. Theory and research suggest nonlawyers might be effective in some civil justice settings, yet we know very little, empirically, about nonlawyer practice in the United States. Using data from more than 5,000 unemployment insurance appeal hearings and interviews with lawyers and nonlawyers, this article explores how both types of representatives learn to do their work and what this means for their effectiveness. Building on recent research regarding the importance of procedural knowledge and relational expertise as elements of representative effectiveness, we uncover new empirical insights: judges play a critical role in shaping nonlawyer legal expertise and nonlawyers develop expertise almost exclusively through “trial and error.” We find evidence that while experienced nonlawyers can help parties through their expertise with common court procedures and basic substantive legal concepts, they are not equipped to challenge judges on contested issues of substantive or procedural law in individual cases, advance novel legal claims, or to advocate for law reform on a broader scale. These findings have important implications for future access to justice research and program development.


Civil Law | Civil Procedure | Law | Legal Profession