Under Director Marsha Mansfield's
guidance, the Economic Justice
Institute helps bridge Wisconsin’s
widening justice gap.
In one form or another, Professor Marsha Mansfield has championed equal access to justice throughout her legal career—from private practice, where she built a reputation representing consumers and family court litigants to the University of Wisconsin Law School, where since 2007, she has served as director of the Economic Justice Institute.
Home to the five Law School clinics that address the civil legal needs of low-income families, the Economic Justice Institute offers free legal representation to litigants forced to face the complex civil court system on their own. Mansfield's students say the clinics play an important role in preparing them to practice civil law. And under her guidance, students are also taking action to bridge Wisconsin’s widening justice gap—one made worse by a weak economy and state cuts to legal aid programs. Under the supervision of clinic attorneys and professors, law students provide a variety of "unbundled" services, such as preparing litigants for hearings, filing court documents and mediating small claims cases.
Mansfield believes law school clinics, as places where education, service and research intersect, have a duty to serve students and their communities by experimenting with new models of legal service delivery. She says access to basic services, like those offered at EJI clinics, often make the difference between a litigant’s success and failure in court—and she’s out to prove that.
Her research into these more affordable, unbundled services could benefit lower and middle-income families, as well as private practitioners. In the larger legal marketplace, litigants might save money by doing some of the legal work on their own, rather than having attorney representation from start to finish of a case. At the same time, attorneys in private practice could attract more clients, especially those unable or unwilling to pay for full representation.
Beyond the Law School, Mansfield's findings have the potential to impact practice and policymaking in a way that not only serves citizens with unmet legal needs but also benefits taxpayers in general, who fund a court system made less efficient by a backlog of self-represented—and under-prepared—litigants. It's a perfect example of how law-in-action works: the university functions as a laboratory for new ideas that ultimately serve the larger society.