Could licensed lawyers ever go the way of the Dodo and S & H Green Stamps?
I came across this recent article in the Wall Street Journal about the growing interest by non-traditional law school students in signing up for selected law school courses and seeking non-JD graduate-level law degrees (i.e., a Masters) in discreet areas of the law, such as health care, etc. The article got me wondering whether anything could ever bring about a long-term shift away from a world in which graduate students incur huge debt to obtain JD degrees, sit for an arduous 18 hour bar examination, get their license, only to learn that: (1) there are too few available jobs for newly-minted lawyers; (2) many lawyers will only use a fraction of the information we learned during law school; and (3) although we are “fiduciaries” only about 31-38% of the public trusts their lawyers–anything could cause a glacial shift away from this world into one in which tasks and responsibilities traditionally handled by licensed lawyers are done instead by non-lawyers who may (or may not) have specialized training to enable them to assume that responsibility or perform that task.
While I’m just musing, some wonk has surely crunched the numbers and stands ready with a handy statistic about how much this change has already occurred. After all, NOLO has been around since the 1970s. LegalZoom and similar providers have (apparently successfully) developed products and services specifically designed to omit lawyers from supposedly “simple” transactions such as corporate formation, or the drafting of a trust or will. Sophisticated organizations, including realtor associations, already provide for arbitrations with non-lawyer industry experts serving as the neutrals to resolve a dispute. I also know of potentially expensive and protracted divorce disputes that were resolved with reduced time, expense and pain through the involvement of psychologist-lawyer mediation teams.
Let me be clear about what I am not talking about. Professors, bloggers and writers have discussed ad nauseam the disruptive and earth-shaking changes in the business of law (along with the “business” of teaching lawyers their trade) which have largely occurred over the past half-decade. I neither pretend nor want to contribute to this discussion. This is not about The New Normal, whatever you may think of that label. I don’t care whether or how NOLO or LegalZoom might impact the annual Profits Per Partner at Skadden (it won’t) or the profits of a sole practitioner in Visalia, California (it might), or will cause some random law school to shut its doors.
I’m talking instead about the future of our profession. The future of the idea that we are a civilization that needs expensive intermediaries, people specially trained to do our thinking, drafting and arguing for us. That we are a civilization in which two people who reach an agreement need two (or more) comparatively expensive people to reduce it to writing. Or that we lack the ability to argue effectively on our own behalf, without a mouthpiece, about anything more serious than a small debt or a traffic ticket. Are we still going to be that civilization in the future? Or could we ever evolve into a civilization in which lawyers are those jokers they talk about in history books? “I once saw one!”
What, if anything, does it say about the interest, ability and willingness of the public to commit to become more do-it-ourself with regard to tasks and responsibilities formerly handled exclusively by licensed lawyers? By the same token, what could it say about the interest and willingness of people who once thought they wanted to be a licensed lawyer to elect instead to focus their education on a sub or sub-sub-speciality of law (saving $100,000 + in tuition in the process)?
I’m not suggesting any of this could happen soon. Our systems are not ready for it. For example, while citizens are presently free to represent themselves in civil and criminal courts, I can’t even begin to suggest that it’s a good idea for anybody. I’ve been practicing in courts for 20 years, but it would never (ever) occur to me to represent myself in any criminal matter beyond a speeding ticket (and even then). But, like all things, this could change. If criminal and civil courts ever became pro se-friendly . . . (Don’t laugh. Stop it.)
I’m also not taking the position that a civilization without a legal profession would be better or worse than ours. Just different.