The American legal profession has long operated like a medieval guild, with a host of rules and regulations designed to keep down the number of practitioners. And like other anticompetitive occupational cartels, the impact is worst for poor people. It’s much harder for them to work in the legal profession and the higher costs of legal services is felt most acutely by poor people, who often have to do without legal help when they need it. Just as impediments against a free market in cab service hurts the poor the most, so too with the legal profession.
One lawyer who knows this is Allen Mendenhall and in today’s Martin Center article, he explains why states should ditch American Bar Association (ABA) accreditation for their law schools. ABA accreditation merely increases the cost of legal education and does nothing at all to guarantee lawyer competence. Mendenhall writes of the ABA, “Its onerous and in many cases outmoded regulations drive up the price of law school, forcing schools to reallocate resources away from students and education and towards regulatory compliance.”
A few states allow non-ABA law schools to operate (oddly enough, California among them) and those schools cost much less and are more accommodating to “non-traditional” students. “Law schools that are not ABA-accredited often offer inexpensive, part-time evening or night programs that enable students to work during their studies,” Mendenhall writes. ”Students who cannot afford to take off years of work to pursue legal education can complete these part-time programs in four to five years. This affordable option provides needed access to legal education for low-income students who wish to become lawyers.”
Actually, the Gordian Knot-cutting solution is just to allow the free market full rein in the legal profession. Mendenhall agrees, writing, “If there were no law schools, no bar exams, and no barriers to entry, we could still figure out how to weed out the good lawyers from the bad. In fact, we might even see exciting new advances in the field of online reputation markets that could rank and assess lawyers, giving a feedback mechanism to consumers.” In this regard, he briefly mentions unauthorized practice of law prohibitions. Those laws keep out people who want to compete with licensed attorneys — they protect the guild’s turf. Getting rid of them is, I believe, the key element in legal reform.
Freeing up legal education and the legal profession is one of those issues where left and right ought to agree, the author concludes. He’s right. I would dearly love to see state bar associations try to defend their restrictive rules against those who favor free markets and those who are mainly concerned about “social justice.”