TCLE Joins New York Times Debate on Whether Practice of Law Should be Open to Everyone

Criticism of lawyers is pretty common, but sometimes the critics take a position so out of left field that you don’t see it coming.  Three days ago, the New York Times published an online op-ed piece by an economist at the Brookings Institution suggesting that bar exams and law schools should be abolished and that non-lawyers be allowed to provide legal services in order to lower costs: 

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 author contends that the free market and online reviews of lawyers by online services could replace the current system of legal education, licensing and attorney discipline in ensuring that providers of legal services are competent. 

Jonathan Smaby, Executive Director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, responded with a letter to the editor that was published on the Times website this morning:

Clifford Winston’s proposal to eliminate law schools and bar exams in order to lower legal costs (“Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?,” Op-Ed, The New York Times on the Web, Oct. 25) is akin to abolishing medical schools and physician licensing to make health care more affordable. While we are at it, why not eliminate education and licensing requirements for engineers, accountants, electricians and plumbers?

Because — as any economist surely knows — the price of professional services must reflect not only the immediate overhead costs, but also the societal investment in expertise and quality control. When the free market replaces law schools and bar exams, the incompetence of Mr. Winston’s new self-declared “lawyers” would be discovered only after thousands of unfortunate consumers learn the hard way that their legal rights are irretrievably lost.

The legal profession is not a monopoly; competition among licensed attorneys is alive and well. But focusing solely on the cost of legal services misses the point. Our training, licensing, ethics rules and even our malpractice insurance are not designed to protect us. They exist to protect our clients.

Posted: 10/28/2011 11:47:02 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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