Last year, IAALS surveyed members of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) as part of a broader research effort exploring public trust and confidence in the legal system. The ABOTA survey findings were published in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Voir Dire in an article authored by Logan Cornett, IAALS Senior Research Analyst, and Natalie Knowlton, IAALS Director of Special Projects.

The survey explored attorney levels of trust and confidence in the system and factors that influence their perspectives. A substantial majority of respondents reported high levels of confidence in both the state and federal court systems (76% and 75%, respectively). With respect to the state civil court system, more than half (56%) of survey respondents indicated their confidence hadn’t changed over the last five years, but just over one-third (35%) expressed that it had decreased. Respondents most frequently cited politics on the bench, un- or underqualified judges, and underfunded courts as reasons for declining confidence.

In terms of confidence levels in the federal civil court system, about two-thirds (65%) reported no change, while about one-quarter (24%) indicated a decrease in confidence. As with state civil courts, respondents indicating decreased levels of confidence in the federal civil courts frequently pointed to politics on the bench among their determining factors, as well as the quality of the judiciary. Some respondents also reported a perception that judges want to move cases through the system too quickly.

The survey explored specific aspects of the court system that potentially impacted respondent perspectives, including issues related to judicial case management and investment, judicial decision-making, and representation and case outcomes.

  Strongly Disagree Somewhat Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree Somewhat Agree Strongly Agree
Judicial Case-Management Items
Judges are effective at managing their cases. 2.0% 22.6% 25.6% 44.2% 5.6%
Judges are invested in the cases before them.  8.0% 20.7% 35.3% 30.0% 6.0%
Judicial Decision-Making Items
Judges in civil cases are biased. 21.2% 25.8% 19.2% 29.8% 4.0%
Judges sometimes consider things beyond the evidence and the law when making decisions. 5.0% 10.3% 11.3% 59.6% 13.9%
The judge’s mood plays a role in the decisions s/he makes. 4.6% 9.9% 20.2% 51.3% 13.9%
Events in the judge’s personal life play a role in the decisions s/he makes. 5.0% 10.0% 25.9% 48.5% 10.6%
Prior and/or ongoing relationships between an attorney and a judge plays a role in the case outcome.  7.3% 11.6% 18.5% 53.8% 8.9%
Representation and Case Outcomes Item
The more expensive a party’s lawyer, the better the case outcomes for that party tend to be. 16.6% 23.8% 24.2% 30.8% 4.6%

ABOTA members attributed public concern with the civil legal process to factors such as the high financial costs of participating in a lawsuit, the influence of the judge’s personal and/or political beliefs, and the perception that attorneys engage in gamesmanship. While respondents recognize that financial issues associated with pursing a legal case are the most pressing for clients, they also perceive that the public is worried about judicial bias, as well as how attorneys approach their cases. The survey sought not only to understand respondents’ own perspectives, but how respondents think their clients view the civil legal system. Only about one-quarter (24%) of respondents thought that a first-time individual client’s confidence in the civil system was somewhat or extremely high at the outset of the case—but that this proportion increased to 61% by the case’s conclusion. “These findings suggest that respondents perceive that client experience with the civil justice system tends to increase their levels of confidence.”

Some of the most polarizing questions came from the section of the survey that inquired about self-represented litigants; survey respondents were almost evenly split on whether or not there were some types of cases that litigants could manage on their own.

“Together, these findings suggest that, although respondent confidence in the civil justice system is generally high, there are many salient issues—such as bias and the high incidence of self-representation in civil cases—that deserve much more attention. Finding ways to address and resolve these issues is pivotal for ensuring a civil justice system that is both trusted and trustworthy.”

We hope that our findings can be step toward finding those solutions, and making our justice system one we can all believe in.