The evidence is becoming clearer every day: the legal profession has some big changes coming its way. An op-ed in the New York Times asks whether law schools and bar exams are necessary at all:
What if the barriers to entry were simply done away with?Legal costs would be reduced because non-lawyers, who have not had to make a costly investment in a three-year legal education, would compete with lawyers, who in many states are the only options for basic services like drafting wills. Because they will have incurred much lower costs to enter the field — like taking an online course or attending a vocational school — and can operate as solo practitioners with minimal overhead, these non-lawyers would force prices to fall. The poor would benefit from the lower prices for non-criminal matters, and poor litigants, who might be unrepresented in criminal matters like hearings because they could not afford a lawyer and because of dwindling state legal aid, would be better off.At the same time, if corporations — and not just law firms, now structured as partnerships — could provide legal representation, their technological sophistication and economies of scale could offer much more affordable services than established law firms do. These firms, in turn, would have to reduce prices to compete.Of course, lower legal prices would cause new law school graduates to be paid less, but more jobs would be available for such graduates because the demand for lawyers would increase. And new graduates would begin their careers with less law-school debt, because alternative providers of legal education would force law schools to reduce tuition.
The author raises some good points, and is joining a growing chorus of people on both sides of the political spectrum calling for major reform to the legal profession. Legal costs have risen dramatically over the past quarter century, and legal fees and expenses are consuming a growing chunk of corporate and individual budgets that could be better put towards more productive ends. Anything with a chance of reversing this trend is worth considering.Although I certainly don’t believe that law schools should be done away with entirely, there is merit to the idea of loosening industry-imposed restrictions that prohibit non-law school graduates from practicing law. Although some aspects of law are extremely complicated and may necessitate years of concentrated study under the supervision of a professor, there is no reason why many of the ordinary and mundane aspects of law cannot be performed by someone who is self-taught through a series of online courses, especially if this study is supplemented by practical experience.Perhaps we are looking at hiving off many of the functions now performed by lawyers and setting up more para-professional certification processes that are exam based. You pass the test and you get a license to practice certain aspects of what traditionally has been the legal profession. We may also be looking at making bar exams a little more demanding in terms of requiring more than simply technical knowledge of the law, and opening the profession to anyone who can pass the test.There will always be a market for elite lawyers, and the majority of these will continue to come from top law schools. But there is no reason that the legal profession cannot accommodate more competition at other levels. If it can bring down legal costs, it would be a step well worth taking and, assisted by good software programs, many people can get their routine legal work done with no human help or much less than in the past.This is a good thing, not a bad one, and society needs to capitalize on the potential for cutting costs and raising social productivity that a streamlining of the legal profession could produce.Abraham Lincoln never went to law school and he turned out pretty well. And there are a lot of shysters and cheats who have engraved certificates from prestigious schools hanging on their walls. The legal guild, like other closed professional shops, needs to change. Price pressures will make that happen, and soon.All this, of course, is only an early stage in the restructuring of legal institutions. Beyond the question of how is the profession defined and who gets to practice is the bigger question of how does the legal system as a whole change to take advantage of the cost saving potential of IT. But now that the Gray Lady has broached the subject, expect the pace of change to pick up.