Refresh on the Messaging

November 1, 2018 - 12:04 pm

This morning at the NLADA annual conference Civil Caucus Voices previewed All Rise for Civil Justice, our new digital storytelling campaign that will launch in early 2019. We will share more information on All Rise – including how you can be a part of it – in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we think this is a good time to refresh your knowledge of the findings from our 2017 civil justice messaging research. We draw on these findings every day, and they will be the foundation of All Rise for Civil Justice.

When Voices decided to commission this round of public opinion/messaging research, we already knew a few things. From our initial research in 2013, we knew that civil legal aid is largely unknown to American voters, yet, when they understand what civil legal aid is they are highly supportive (on par with motherhood and apple pie). We also knew that voters embrace a broad definition of civil legal aid, ranging from individual representation to self-help tools.

In 2017, it was time to check in on those and other findings and build on them. We were also eager to gauge the voting public’s appetite for civil justice reform.

The findings are very encouraging:

  • 84 percent of voters believe it is important for our democracy to ensure everyone has access to the civil justice system – an enormous level of support, indicating this is a core value on which to build support for civil justice reform and civil legal aid.
  • 82 percent of voters agree that “equal justice under the law is a right, not a privilege.” Again, this level of support signifies a core value and an opportunity.
  • Voters believe low-income individuals – especially those living in rural areas – and people struggling to make ends meet, face the most difficulty in obtaining legal help.
  • Voters strongly favor reform of the civil justice system, with half saying it needs to be rebuilt completely or fundamentally changed.
  • Strong majorities of voters support increasing state funding to build a more accessible civil justice system, and surprisingly that support remains robust even when tied to the notion of raising taxes to do so.
  • Voters overwhelmingly support the most traditional and familiar form of service to ensure access to the civil justice system – namely, having a lawyer. They also strongly support a wide range of services that comprise a holistic approach to ensuring justice for all.

The key research findings point us to messages that emphasize shared values, are rooted in lived experience, provide tangible solutions, and end with a clear call to action.
Here are a few messaging tips based on the research:

  • The value of equal justice under the law is widely held. Voters strongly support enhancing access to the civil justice system, whether it’s framed as “legal representation” or “legal help.” Note that “assistance” does not test as strongly as “representation” or “help.”
  • Language rooted in real-life experiences your audience can relate to is more engaging and persuasive. Examples: “A veteran denied hard-earned benefits.” “A family facing the loss of a home due to job layoff or medical catastrophe.” When you use “a” to bring the experience down to the level of an individual, your audience is likely to see in their mind’s eye a specific person; this makes it harder for them to revert to negative stereotypes. Also, describing a person or a family as “ struggling to make ends meet” is more effective than “low-income.”
  • Focus on solutions. Your audiences have plenty of things to worry about already, so they don’t want to hear about more problems. Emphasizing solutions is more persuasive than just a litany of what is wrong. Our research found that the base and persuadables strongly support an array of services in a system that enables everyone to get access to the information and effective assistance they need when they need it and in a form they can use. Among the most popular: simplifying court processes, allowing trained non-lawyers to provide some forms of legal help, offering online tools and other self-help services, and providing screening to guide people to the type of help they need.

The Role of Cognitive Linguistics
In preparation for this latest round of research, we asked Shenker-Osorio to conduct a language analysis of how our issues – civil legal aid and civil justice reform – are currently talked about. Her analysis revealed a few frames we can use to describe the problem we want to solve, and the story we tell about its origins.

1) Frame problems as legal
Shenker-Osorio reminds us that frames and metaphors matter. They influence not just how we speak, but the ways we unconsciously decide what ought to be done about an issue. Research has shown, for example, that groups primed with a metaphor of crime as “disease” (plaguing our communities) favor preventative solutions such as after school programs and preschool for all. Those presented with a metaphor of crime as “opponent” (fight crime, get tough on crime) thought harsher punishments were the way to go.

One of the most consistent findings in each phase of Voices’ opinion research is that Americans have little understanding about the kinds of cases the civil justice system addresses. This is consistent with research from Rebecca Sandefur that suggests a key barrier to Americans getting legal help for their civil legal problems is their failure to perceive their problems as legal in nature.

To address this challenge, Shenker-Osorio recommends that we bring the courtroom into the frame. Courtrooms have a prominent place on television, but our advocacy for legal aid often pushes them to the background. By using terms like “legal aid lawyer” and phrases like “having your day in court” and “appearing before a judge,” we can activate this familiar frame and help our audience recognize, for example, that a dispute with a landlord or getting hounded by a bill collector is actually a legal problem with a potential legal solution.

2) Put the actors into our story
When we don’t make clear that problems are created when people do things, what we suggest instead is that harms are mysteriously visited upon people, and solutions similarly fall from the sky. The reality is that harms are the result of deliberate decisions by people, and it takes deliberate actions by people to correct them. Unless we convince our audiences that people making intentional – and at times nefarious – decisions are behind the outcomes we seek to change, we can’t make a strong case that other outcomes are possible.  In her analysis, Shenker-Osorio found that we tend to shield from view the actors who create the harms we target, and we fail to give our audiences the clarity they need to “get” the origin of the problems we describe.

Shenker-Osorio concludes that by “passivizing” problems, we are falling prey to the common tendency of implying that bad things “just happen.” Her memoenumerates many examples of this that you’ll readily recognize – and can easily fix.

3) Avoid “Gap” language
We know this will be a tough change for the legal aid sector, but there is more harm than good in using the term “justice gap.” The “gap” metaphor, while popular right now, fails in every domain where it’s been tested, including health care access, educational achievement, income, and now justice. The primary problem is that the word “gap” says there is a difference but conveys no origin story about how or why it came to be, nor does it offer a clue about what needs to be changed in order to fix it. In contrast, using the word “barrier” suggests something that is person-created, and therefore can be person-removed.

Shenker-Osorio’s advice to avoid the “gap” metaphor is somewhat complicated by our desire to cite and publicize data in an important LSC report about unmet legal needs, titled The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans. While we should certainly utilize the contents of the report, we are well advised to minimize and eventually eliminate the use of the “justice gap” metaphor as a way of explaining the problem we’re trying to fix.

This is a strong foundation on which, together, we can continue to build and intensify support for civil justice reform and civil legal aid.  The key findings from Lake Research Partners and ASO Communications are presented in “Building a Civil Justice System that Delivers Justice for All.”

We also recommend listening to this audio recording of Celinda Lake and Anat Shenker-Osorio sharing the survey results.