The preponderance of lawyers at the highest levels of American politics is both a cause and effect of our country’s relatively high levels of economic inequality. Or so argues Lee Drutman in a Vox piece examining some of the recent academic literature on the glut of bar-certified representatives on Capitol Hill:
The US has a dubious distinction among advanced industrialized nations: We have the highest share of lawyers in our national legislature. We also have the highest share of income going to the top 1 percent. Coincidence? […]
Running for office these days requires that many very wealthy people both know you and like you. Of all the professions, lawyers, especially those from elite law schools, are by far best positioned to do this. That’s because they are most likely to be both rich themselves and connected to other rich people.
Drutman favorably cites proposals for “political scholarships” and “candidate recruitment programs,” among others, to increase the number of non-lawyers (and non-wealthy people) who run for office.
Some of these ideas sound promising. It’s probably true that in some parts of the country, wealthy lawyers have monopolized the elite social networks that are helpful for launching successful Congressional campaigns. But it’s also not obvious that making more money available to non-lawyers, in and of itself, would solve this problem. The empirical evidence that higher expenditures actually increase a candidate’s chances of winning a Congressional race is still equivocal at best.
Here’s a more straightforward solution—one that would be good policy even if it doesn’t usher hundreds more working people into the Senate and House: Let’s rein in the American Bar Association cartel and introduce more competition into the legal services sector.
Lawyers at big firms are able to command extraordinary rates (24 year-old associates now make $180,000) not because their talents are so extraordinarily rare, but because, as Clifford Winston and Quentin Karpilow have argued in the American Economic Review, the ABA has created a protectionist racket that shuts competitors out of the market and blocks the technological innovation that has brought prices down for services in so many other sectors.
For example, “firms that sell legal services must be owned and managed by lawyers who are licensed to practice in the United States, meaning that corporations and foreign law firms cannot compete in this market”—even if they hired ABA-approved lawyers to do the relevant work. Moreover, even routine paperwork that could easily be performed at lower cost by less-credentialed workers must be carried out by lawyers in many states.
Eliminating some of these gratuitous barriers to entry in the legal services market would likely ameliorate inequality in two ways: First, it would make legal services cheaper and more accessible to people who can’t afford them. Second, by rolling back the ABA’s rent-seeking and making the market more fair, it would rein in the financial and political power held by Big Law high-flyers. In other words, we can weaken the rule of lawyers while strengthening the rule of law.