In a recent study, Greiner and a team of researchers examined low-income people’s attempts to get simple, uncontested divorces in Philadelphia over a period of five years. Working with the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, a legal-aid organization, the researchers randomly assigned 74 divorce-seekers, out of 311, into a pool of people they would attempt to match with attorneys. Those whom the team tried to match with lawyers were much more likely to successfully get a divorce within three years: About 46 percent of them got divorced in the county, compared with 9 percent of the control group, whose members were not matched with an attorney. (Not everyone the authors attempted to match with a lawyer actually got one: Some reconciled with their spouse, and attorneys could not reach others.) “You had to be quite lucky to get a divorce if you didn't have a lawyer,” Greiner told me.
Uncontested divorces are those in which both parties agree to divorce and on how to divide assets. Yet divorce requires spouses to sue each other, and doing so involves surmounting a series of complicated hurdles, even in the most straightforward cases. Divorce laws vary by state and county, but in general, a person may have to hire a process server to get the divorce paperwork to their spouse, which costs about $200. They may have to file complicated forms, face multiple waiting periods, and make multiple trips to the post office, courthouse, and a law library—none of which is likely to be open after 5 p.m. At the time of the study, courthouse clerks in Philadelphia were not allowed to give legal advice, so they couldn’t answer basic questions about which forms were the right forms. “I’ve studied law all my life, and I did not know what a praecipe to transmit the record to the prothonotary was,” Greiner said. “I have no idea what those words mean.” Neither would someone without a law degree, presumably.