Wall Street Journal op-ed: Lower the Bar for Legal Eagles Who Don’t Go to Law School, by Clifford Winston (Brookings Institution; Co-Author, Trouble at the Bar: An Economics Perspective on the Legal Profession and the Case for Fundamental Reform (2021)):
CNN anchor Poppy Harlow recently took a leave of absence from the network to attend a one-year master’s degree program for nonlawyers at Yale Law School. By drawing attention to Yale’s M.S.L. program, Ms. Harlow helps shed light on the absurdity of the legal profession’s time-consuming and expensive requirements to be licensed as a lawyer, which primarily serve to raise lawyers’ earnings and limit access to justice.
If Ms. Harlow wanted to practice law after completing the M.S.L. program, she wouldn’t be able to do so. Instead, she would have to be accepted by a law school with a three-year program accredited by the American Bar Association, and pass a state bar exam. The ABA and state bar examiners maintain that these requirements establish a minimum standard of quality for lawyers and protect clients from incompetent representation.
However, their rationale doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Legal advice is what economists call a “credence good” because, like auto repairs and medical procedures, its quality is difficult for consumers to evaluate accurately, even after purchase. Thanks to technological advances, many industries have made strides toward reducing the cost of imperfect information associated with credence goods. Websites like Angie’s List (now Angi) and Yelp, as well as social media platforms, inform consumers about the quality, reputation, and performance of service providers, such as plumbers, electricians and landscapers. Similar websites, such as Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell, let consumers search for lawyers.
The consequence of unnecessary restrictions on legal education is to pad lawyers’ pockets, not to benefit consumers of legal services. Indeed, limited access to justice, which subsumes access to legal representation and to the courts, is a reality for most people. The nonprofit Legal Services Corporation estimates that the legal profession fails to serve 80% of the public and limits access to their services. Nearly 90% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans “received inadequate or no legal help,” according to the organization’s 2017 “Justice Gap” report. ...
Although Ms. Harlow said she looks forward to returning to CNN after her studies, society would be better off if, as a starting point, she and other Yale M.S.L. graduates could find work providing legal assistance. Then the nation could expand legal education options and achieve greater access to justice.
See also Eliminate The Bar Exam For Lawyers (Wall Street Journal Mar. 18, 2021)