Deregulate, Don't Subsidize the Legal Profession

An op-ed in today’s New York Times argued that not enough lawyers served the poor. The author, Theresa Amato, therefore proposed that the government should subsidize lawyers and lawyering. It should provide more funds for the Legal Service Corporation, a federal entity that offers legal services for the underserved. It should provide more loan forgiveness for lawyers who work in the “public interest.” Law schools should provide more clinics to make lawyers practice ready for low-income service

Ms. Amato may well be right in believing that the poor need more lawyers, although her own evidence is relatively weak, focusing on a few unrepresentative rural jurisdictions. Moreover, the poor might well choose to take the money by which the state subsidizes lawyers and spend it instead for other goods and services that would more greatly improve their lives.  But, whatever the need, Amato’s proposals are the wrong way to solve the problem. We should deregulate the legal profession to lower its costs, rather than subsidize it.

The cost of most law schools is far too high, but forgiving student debt will just encourage law schools to charge more. Instead, we need to create a variety of lower cost platforms for legal education. I have suggested an undergraduate option and the University of Arizona has initiated such a program. The Arizona Supreme Court should now create a program letting undergraduates sit for the bar.

My dean, Dan Rodriguez, and Sam Estreicher of NYU law school have suggested allowing students to sit for the bar after two years of law school. This would also be a positive development. More generally the ABA should radically deregulate their accreditation requirements for law schools, permitting law schools to differentiate their programs. Law is a very variegated profession and a lawyer serving Goldman Sachs likely needs more training than a divorce lawyer for the poor

But deregulation should not stop with the legal education. Unfortunately today, lawyers are trying to use norms against the unauthorized practice of law prevent firms like Legal Zoom from using machines to provide cheap services to the poor and middle class. As machine intelligence improves, the alternatives will become only more effective unless they are blocked by a greedy and self-interested bar.

States should also experiment with permitting paralegals to undertake relatively simple legal tasks on their own after graduating from a certificate program. Just as physician’s assistants can deliver a lot of medicine efficiently so can such legal practitioners.

Finally, Amato who has forthcoming book, Liberated Lawyering: How Lawyers can Change the World, has proffered proposals that would also advance the left-liberal agenda by providing government resources to a group that, as I have argued before, promotes the larger state. “Public interest” lawyers tend to promote that objective most of all. Deregulation will not only serve poor, it will help prevent the lawyer class, particularly the professoriate, from becoming a more powerful left-wing pressure group.