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How to transform America’s legal system – by changing who is allowed to provide free legal advice

Rohan Pavuluri and his organization, Upsolve, are fighting for a new civil right — the right to access legal advice, no matter how much money is in your bank account.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Entrepreneur Rohan Pavuluri finds himself going back to these passages in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution often. “These are deeply inspiring documents,” he says. “You would think that no matter where you're born, no matter the circumstances of your life, you would have access to the rule of law.”

He pauses for a moment. “Unfortunately, we are nowhere near living up to that.”

Pavuluri, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, is the co-founder and CEO of Upsolve, a nonprofit working to transform America’s legal system so that everyone can access their rights, regardless of their ability to pay for legal services. Since its founding in 2016, Upsolve’s vision has been to leverage technology and provide online education to help more Americans access their civil legal rights. To date, its key product — a “TurboTax for bankruptcy” — has helped relieve more than $400 million in debt for families facing financial hardships, and its bankruptcy guides reach 2 million people a year.

But the organization is at an inflection point. What Pavuluri wants from here is to change the legal system altogether.

The reality is this: in order to access key civil protections — like the right to file for bankruptcy, fight eviction, seek a no-contest divorce, or a restraining order — people must hire a lawyer, which can be prohibitively expensive. Americans are only guaranteed a free lawyer in criminal cases, but not in the vast majority of civil cases. And while going without a lawyer in these cases is possible in theory, it requires that a person make their way through complex paperwork designed for legal professionals.

And yet, all 50 states have laws on the books that prohibit people from getting routine legal advice from any other kind of trained professional, even if a lawyer is beyond their means. These laws were passed with the best of intentions — to protect consumers from getting bad advice from people not trained in the law — but often have the inverse effect, preventing them from getting legal advice because they can’t afford it.

It’s not just a paradox, says Pavuluri — it’s unconstitutional. The right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is clear as day at the end of the First Amendment. Yet, in actuality, large tracts of the population aren’t able to access it. “We don't have equal rights under the law,” he says. “What we have is equal rights if you can afford a lawyer.”

That’s why in January, Upsolve filed a lawsuit against the state of New York arguing that it is in violation of the first amendment to prohibit non-lawyers from giving basic legal advice to people who need it. Ultimately, he wants Upsolve to be able to train trusted members of low-income communities – like clergy, social workers, and front-line health workers – to offer free legal advice on issues like responding to debt collection lawsuits.

“We’re fighting for a new civil right,” Pavuluri says. “The right to access your civil rights regardless of how much money you have in your bank account.”

Pavuluri never imagined himself leading a civil rights movement. His parents immigrated from India to New Zealand, then New Zealand to Australia, then Australia to the US — uprooting themselves again and again to end up in this country. “The story of their life is, basically, the story of trying to create a better life for their kids,” Pavuluri says, “which is the story of millions of immigrants in the United States.”

He grew up in Chicago and, in 2008, found himself deeply inspired by Barack Obama’s campaign for President. “His vision for government just felt magical — change a policy and, overnight, you can improve the lives of millions of people,” Pavuluri says. When he enrolled in college, he thought his future would be in politics and he expected to go to law school. But two undergrad experiences changed his course. First, he enrolled in Introduction to Computer Science, which opened his eyes to the potential for technology to make people’s lives easier. And second, he joined the Access to Justice Lab, a law school clinic. At the lab, Pavuluri helped distribute paper packets for individuals deep in debt, helping them understand how to file for bankruptcy. It was there where he started to understand how legal fees were affecting people’s lives.

“Bankruptcy is this really powerful safety net for low income families who suffer from financial shocks, like losing their job or having a medical emergency,” says Pavuluri. “It’s this lifeline that helps you relieve your debt and re-enter society. But the tragedy for regular people is that it costs $1,500 to hire the lawyer you need to declare bankruptcy. And when you're in $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 of debt, it's often impossible to afford $1,500.”

Rohan Pavuluri at the 2021 Dial Summit.

Seeing first-hand how the lab’s packets empowered people to file for bankruptcy, without that lawyer fee, was “extraordinary,” says Pavuluri. And so, in the summer of 2016, after his sophomore year, he moved to Brooklyn to explore the concept more. He went to Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, Housing Court in Brooklyn, Small Claims Court in the Bronx, and shadowed a legal aid lawyer in Queens — all to understand what it was like to be a person going through the legal system on their own. He stayed in New York City, continuing this work and taking the $20 Megabus to classes in Boston, through to graduation. “I had this idea of using technology to help people who need to access bankruptcy,” he says.

And so, after graduating in 2018, Pavuluri put his all into Upsolve, full-time. The organization’s first goal was to create education to help individuals understand the benefits and downsides of bankruptcy — and to help them file using a self-service software tool, should they desire. The educational platform and tool he created has been wildly successful, helping hundreds of thousands of people since its release.

“So grateful for the easy process of walking me through something so utterly daunting,” reads one Google review posted in January. “Upsolve is a lifesaver,” says another. Dozens of reviews like this are posted weekly.

For its first four years of existence, Pavuluri saw Upsolve as a technology organization. His focus was firmly on building products to help people help themselves. But as he watched social entrepreneurs like Bryan Stevenson and Ai-jen Poo, Pavuluri started to think about the potential for more. “I realized that we needed to invest time into sharing the stories of the people we help, talking about the injustices they face, and proposing solutions that can fundamentally change broken systems.”

That is why Upsolve filed its lawsuit in New York — to seek an exemption of laws prohibiting non-lawyers from providing legal advice, so that Upsolve can train frontline professionals embedded in communities to give high-quality, free legal advice to anyone facing a debt collection lawsuit. He calls these people Justice Advocates.

The only way that we can ever achieve equal rights under the law is if we dramatically expand the supply of free legal assistance.

It may sound like a wild idea, but Pavuluri points out that there is ample precedent. In medicine, nurse practitioners and community health workers offer care in cases where a doctor isn’t needed. In emergencies, volunteer firefighters and EMTs train hard to help their fellow citizens in circumstances where every moment counts. Like these professionals, Pavuluri assures that Justice Advocates will be well-trained and held to high standards.

“The bottom line is that we will never have enough free lawyers to meet the demand. We don’t have nearly enough pro bono and legal aid lawyers — we don't even have close to enough,” says Pavuluri. “The only way that we can ever achieve equal rights under the law is if we dramatically expand the supply of free legal assistance.”

The new lawsuit focuses specifically on the issue of debt collection lawsuits. Three New Yorkers who’ve been through this contributed affidavits to the lawsuit. Liz Jurado was sued for $12,000 by her anesthesiologist for a routine epidural in childbirth — she found out about the suit in 2019, though the epidural was given a decade prior. Christopher Lepre, meanwhile, bought a lemon SUV. He was sued for $15,000, even though he’d returned the vehicle when it stopped working, three months after the purchase. And William Evertson was sued by a third-party debt buyer — for a debt that wasn’t his.

None of them could afford a lawyer to fight their suits, and each of them automatically lost their case as a result. And their situations are far from unique. More than 70 million Americans have debt in collections at any given time, most often for medical debt, subprime auto-loans, and debt purchases by third parties. Each year, 4 million of them are sued—but the vast majority can’t afford legal representation, so 70% of them lose by default, without the court even considering the facts of the case. And given the profound racial wealth gap in America, these injustices around debt collection disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic communities.

That’s why Reverend John Udo-Okon, the pastor of the Word of Life church in the South Bronx, wants to be trained as a Justice Advocate. He’s a pillar of his community, known for giving clothing to anyone in need and feeding hundreds every week. He, too, is a part of Upsolve’s lawsuit. Many of his congregants, in a neighborhood that is 70% Hispanic and 28% Black, are facing debt collection lawsuits and he wants to be able to guide them through the process of fighting them, rather than simply giving up and letting their wages be garnished or credit tarnished. “Members of my community are shut out from ways to vindicate their own rights,” he explains.

Upsolve’s lawsuit couldn’t come at a more critical moment. Around the country, many people are accumulating debt from COVID-related medical care. Eviction moratoriums are expiring as loan repayments restart. The outcome will be more people in need of help filing for bankruptcy and fighting wrongful debt collection.

It could be weeks to months before Upsolve gets an initial response to their suit. But Pavuluri finds the motivation to keep fighting for this civil right from the stories he hears every day of people helped by Upsolve. And he’s motivated by his parents too. “They believed in the promise of the American project,” he says. “The great thing about America is that we always try to keep making it better. Really, what I feel like we're doing at Upsolve is working on this American experiment.”

Learn more about Rohan Pavuluri and the Dial Fellowship.