Friday, January 28, 2011

The solution to the problem of too many lawyers: more lawyers!

I recently read a curious essay called "The Secret is Out About Law Schools," by George Leef.  The primary thrust of the article is to comment on the recent focus on whether going to law school is a good idea.   Much of the article expands on the anecdotes in this widely read New York Times article by David Segal (titled "Is Law School a Losing Game?").  But he concludes with a pointed criticism of that article:
Where the article disappoints is its failure to thoroughly diagnose our glut of lawyers problem.
On its face, this seems like an unfair criticism.  Segal's article could be neatly summarized, in fact, as a thorough diagnosis of the problem with our glut of lawyers -- lots of them sitting around earning nothing while their student debts come due.

But I think the confusion may be in Leef's tortured syntax.  I think when he says Segal failed to "diagnose our glut of lawyers problem," he is not saying that it is a problem that there is a glut of lawyers; he is saying this glut of lawyers has a problem--and that problem was only that they had to go to law school to become a lawyer.

The reason I think this is what Leef means is that his solution for the problem, as he diagnoses it, is not to discourage people from becoming lawyers.  No, his solution is to make it easier for people to become lawyers:
the right move is to open this market up to competition. States should allow individuals to attempt the bar (passing which, incidentally, is itself neither necessary nor sufficient for competence as a lawyer) no matter where or how they have studied law.
So his counter-intuitive recommendation for a market already saturated with unemployed lawyers is more competition from even less qualified new lawyers.

How does this make sense?  It makes sense, to Leef at least, because letting people become lawyers without going to law school would mean that people could become lawyers without racking up all that crushing debt.  In other words, it would be much less risky to try to become a lawyer.

One problem with this solution is that it doesn't actually do anything to help the many unemployed lawyers that are already out there -- the ones that had to go to law school and accumulate all that debt.  In fact, if Leef had his way the situation would become even worse for that cohort -- because a fresh wave of debt-free new lawyers could flood the market and afford to work for less money.  So maybe Leef has diagnosed the problem, but his medicine seems to make the disease even worse.

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