Deregulating the legal profession

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

Recently I blogged about some suggestions for students in law school to prepare themselves for the world of practice and distinguish themselves from others in the same position. However, apart from getting work experience or taking more practically-oriented classes to improve your resume, due to the nature of most law schools in the US, students need some work experience in order to get a proper understanding of what it takes to actually practice law.  Changing the focus of law school courses to be more geared to the world of legal practice, which the majority of graduates ultimately enter, is necessary.

Some critics have argued that the monopoly on legal education enjoyed by law schools in the current structure should be abolished. The basic argument is along the following lines: Law schools do not prepare lawyers for the practical world, the huge cost of law school is driving up the cost of legal services, there are plenty of “legal document preparation services” now, like LegalZoom, that can meet people’s legal needs without needing to consult an attorney anyway; so why not just allow non-lawyers to practice and give legal advice?

This week’s post looks at some of the possible consequences of deregulating the legal profession.

‘Cheaper’ Legal Services

One benefit of letting anyone practice law is that it would certainly result in a huge decrease in the cost of legal services for consumers. Of course ‘cheaper’ here, many argue, would necessarily entail deterioration in the quality of the legal service offered and cause a proliferation of predators looking to make a quick buck from the people who can’t afford regular legal fees.

Of course it’s not that simple. For the average consumer it’s nearly impossible, as it is, to distinguish the good lawyers from the not so good, or even the competent from the incompetent. And there are people working in various fields that deal with the law on a daily basis and could be considered more knowledgeable in that area than most lawyers. In fact, there was a study done in the early 2000s which analyzed insurance adjusters who were allowed step up for clients on certain matters within their field of expertise. The study found that the insurance adjusters achieved results as good as, and sometimes better than, lawyers did.

However, even if it were widely accepted that expertise gained from experience was a more reliable gauge of a person’s ability to represent you on a particular legal matter than a JD, allowing non-attorneys to represent clients is a bad idea.

Would We All Have to Change Our Ways?

The question of what would happen to lawyers is an interesting one. While it’s probably fair to say that many large corporate lawyers could continue without changing much, there might be some competition from the likes of banks, accounting firms or insurance companies. But would this be true for everyone?

A plaintiff’s personal-injury lawyer who works on a contingent fee basis could probably also continue unless nonlawyers were taking a smaller cut of the plaintiff’s damages. But I think opening up the legal profession would have serious effects on small and midsize firms that primarily do transactional and advisory work in discrete areas like estate planning or conveyancing. These lawyers would probably have to reduce fees significantly or try something else to stand out. Indeed, it is arguably unfair on lawyers who have gone through the law school, taken on huge loans to pay for it and built modest practices to force them reduce fees and change their practices in order to let others, who have not taken the time and expense to qualify traditionally, to enter the market.

While this post hardly even scratches the surface of what is a very interesting question for lawyers, consumers and students alike, it is something we may have to ponder more deeply someday.

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