Jessica Steinberg is a nationally recognized expert on civil access to justice. Her scholarship focuses on various dimensions of lawyerless courts, which now occupy seventy-five percent of the civil justice system. Specifically, she has written about case outcomes for low-income pro se litigants, corporate capture of small claims courts, innovations in the delivery of legal services, and the evolving role of the judge in civil matters. She has also developed and empirically tested a theory of civil problem-solving courts based on the drug court model, which she posits would better regulate the conduct of powerful private actors, such as landlords and debt buyers, who currently dominate civil dockets and almost always prevail against unrepresented opponents. Professor Steinberg is the former chair of the AALS Section on Poverty Law and the recipient of the California State Bar Public Interest Award. She received her B.A. from Barnard College, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and her J.D. from Stanford Law School.
Professor Steinberg’s scholarship is largely empirical in nature and conducted in collaboration with social scientists. Her most recent study examines the role of the judge in lawyerless civil courts and maps the hidden state court ecosystem that buttresses the judicial role. For this study, Professor Steinberg was awarded a Bellow Fellowship through AALS. Her scholarship has been published or is forthcoming in the NYU Law Review, the Georgetown Law Journal, the UCLA Law Review, the Fordham Law Review, and the peer-reviewed social science journal Law & Social Inquiry, among many other journals. She has been in the top 10% of Authors on SSRN for 19 out of the past 24 months. She is regularly asked to present her research at invite-only national conferences, including the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference (plenary session), the Annual Civil Procedure Workshop (plenary session), Stanford’s Regulatory Reform and Access to Justice Workshop, and Fordham Law School’s Colloquium on Judging, and the University of South Carolina’s Empirical Access to Justice Workshop. She also presents at law review symposia, including those held at Georgetown, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin. She frequently presents to non-academic audiences on civil access to justice issues, including the D.C. Judicial and Bar Conference (plenary session), the ABA, Pew Charitable Trusts, the Council for Court Excellence, and a range of court administrators, judges, and legal aid networks.
In her teaching capacity, Professor Steinberg founded and directs the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic. Students enrolled in the course represent prisoners and returning citizens experiencing the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. In close collaboration with the Public Defender Service and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Professor Steinberg and her students handle cases involving applications for parole, clemency, and criminal record sealing, among others. Cases are selected based on the need in the community and the pedagogical value they offer students—both in exposing them to core lawyering skills and also in encouraging them to develop sophisticated views on mass incarceration, as well as the intersection of race, class, and poverty with the justice system. Her clemency work was profiled on the front-page of the New York Times. At the behest of community partners, Professor Steinberg authored the first-ever Parole Practice Manual to support pro se prisoners handling their own parole cases as well as pro bono lawyers working in this sphere.
Professor Steinberg is deeply involved in community-based advocacy and policy reform. Most recently, she authored two major pieces of legislation adopted by the DC Council. The first creates a compassionate release program that allows judges to order early release from prison for old and sick prisoners. The second piece of legislation greatly expands the use of good time credits to reduce a prisoner's sentence for compliance with institutional rules. In 2020, Prof. Steinberg, together with the assistance of national and local organizations, founded the D.C. Compassionate Release Clearinghouse. This project developed trainings and legal resources to enable pro bono lawyers to represent compassionate release clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project also engaged in a mass campaign to educate prisoners about the new law, to gather information about prisoners' eligibility for compassionate release, and then to match them with an available pro bono lawyer. For her work in founding the Clearinghouse, Prof. Steinberg received the Branton Award from the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
Prof. Steinberg also co-authored the District’s Ban the Box bill, which restricts employers from using criminal records information in the initial phases of the hiring process. She developed a white paper on reform of the District’s good time and compassionate release programs, which now serves as the basis for an active advocacy campaign. She regularly testifies at the D.C. Council and at local and federal agencies on bills and regulations that affect the Prisoner & Reentry clinic’s client population. Recently she has testified on bills to permit re-sentencing for prisoners who have served 15 years and committed their crimes as young people; to establish a local clemency board in DC; to expand occupational licensing opportunities for individuals with criminal records; to enhance opportunities for criminal record sealing; and to revise the parole regulations for District of Columbia prisoners. When opportunities arise organically, Professor Steinberg trains law students to testify at public hearings. In the spring of 2021, a Prisoner & Reentry student testified at the oversight hearing of the Mayor's Office of Returning Citizens to present the experiences of clinic clients who had struggled to receive support and resources. In the spring of 2019, a clinic student testified on behalf of her client and in support of the District’s Second Look Act.
Professor Steinberg is passionate about advising students on public interest careers, and in particular, devotes significant time to advising students on how to obtain prestigious post-graduate public interest fellowships. She has helped place five Equal Justice Works fellows, one Skadden fellow, and one Gideon’s Promise fellow—all of whom were students in the Prisoner & Reentry Clinic.