To Lawyer or Not to Lawyer: Is that the Question?


  • Data and tabulations used in preparing this article were generously made available by Masayuki Murayama (Meiji University), Pascoe Pleasance (Legal Services Research Center, London), ab Currie (Department of Justice Canada), Marijke ter Voert (Dutch Ministry of Justice), and Marie Cope (New Zealand Legal Services Agency). The author has sole responsibility for the presentation and interpretation of all data reported and discussed in this article. Versions of the article were presented at the 2007 W. G. Hart Workshop, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, London, England, June 2007, the Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association, Berlin, Germany, July 2008, and at the Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, New York University, November 2007.

*Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law; Professor of Political Science and Law Emeritus, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 875 Summit Ave., Saint Paul, MN 55105; email:


A central aspect of much of the debate over access to justice is the cost of legal services. The presumption of most participants in the debate is that individuals of limited or modest means do not obtain legal assistance because they cannot afford the cost of that assistance. The question I consider in this article is whether income is a major factor in the decision to obtain the assistance of a qualified legal professional. Drawing on data from seven different countries (the United States, England and Wales, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Japan), I examine the relationship between income and using a legal professional. The results are remarkably consistent across the seven countries: income has relatively little relationship with the decision to use a legal professional to deal with a dispute or other legal need. The decision to use a lawyer appears to be much more a function of the nature of the dispute. Even those who could afford to retain a lawyer frequently make the decision to forego that assistance, usually at about the same rate as those with limited resources. The analysis suggests that those considering access to justice issues need to grapple with the more general issues of how those with legal needs, regardless of the resources they have available, evaluate the costs and benefits of hiring a lawyer.