The American Bar Association received a great deal of publicity lately when, at a meeting in Dallas, it identified some serious problems with the legal profession. Problem No. 1 is the debt young lawyers have when they graduate from law school. Problem No. 2 is the perception of inaccessibility of lawyers to the "middle class." Another often heard complaint is that when young lawyers graduate from law school, with their soul owed to the company store, they are not truly trained and competent to practice law.
The answer of the bar association is to cut formal law school education from three years to two years, and to permit paraprofessionals to practice in certain areas of the law. This will somehow address debt and the plunging need for lawyers around the country. A Wall Street Journal analysis indicated that 50 percent of law school graduates cannot find jobs.
The ABA has it all wrong. To reduce lawyer training, thus making lawyers even less competent, and to require the equivalent of a legal residency will indebt lawyers to their employers and the bank. The concept of adding a residency to the current three-year training is a good idea and many of us have either done that or do it in our firms currently. I, for example, served a two-year clerkship with a federal judge. Many lawyers we have hired in our office work for two or more years doing research under the tutelage of partners.
At one time, Pennsylvania had a preceptorship practice whereby young lawyers were required to work with older lawyers. Unfortunately, that system was eliminated.
It is fashionable to compare lawyers to the medical profession. The advent of physician assistants and other paramedical "extenders" has brought health care to many people, but it also has created a great deal of problems. Frequently, the paramedical folks are not supervised by physicians the way they should be. The promise of close supervision by medical doctors is simply a promise without fulfillment and preventable medical errors therefore occur with alarming frequency.
The notion of creating a subclass of lawyers who can deliver legal services in order to cut costs to the middle class is likely to result in less competent work, paraprofessionals being employed by larger law firms in order to assure higher profits, and clients who receive substandard legal work. This is a bad idea.
At one time, prepaid legal services were devised to address middle class legal bills. Why did this fail? The simple reason is that not enough middle class people really needed legal help on a regular basis. Most people use a lawyer for a real estate transaction, personal injury or matrimonial matters. The fees paid to real estate lawyers have dropped dramatically as title insurance has come into play. The cost of a lawyer in a real estate transaction is normally absorbed in the mortgage financing.
As to personal injury cases, the contingent-fee system is the poor man’s key to the courthouse. Lawyers are not going to take loser cases because they must absorb the cost. Therefore, the contingent-fee system tends to support personal injury claims that are well founded. As to matrimonial, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people and clients seem to find the money to fight with their spouses, ex-spouses and relatives.
What about the problem of lawyers not being able to find work? If lawyers cannot find work, then perhaps law schools are accepting too many people and turning out too many lawyers. Perhaps law schools should be honest and cut their enrollment. Of course, law schools do not want to do this because education is big business in America. It is not only law schools but many other colleges that are in the business of printing degrees because it makes money. The schools are certainly not worried about the debt their students incur, because that money is owed to the government, the banks or someone else. If the schools were financing student loans themselves, as perhaps they should be required to do to at least some extent, there would be much more care taken by the schools in whom they accept and whom they educate.
The ABA needs to do some soul-searching as to what it is seeking to accomplish. If the idea is to cut student loans, that is a laudable goal that should not be achieved by diminishing lawyer training. If the goal of the ABA is to make legal services more affordable to the middle class, there needs to be a new approach to prepaid legal insurance that is really meaningful and works for the average person. If the idea is to make legal services more available or more affordable, creating a lower caste of lawyer-like practitioners will have an undesirable effect and will send the wrong message. •
Clifford A. Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, Pa., is a past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represents the views of these organizations.