“When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
— Syndrome, The Incredibles
That’s right, tell your parents to stop bragging. It’s not like you are a doctor, or anything.
Getting a law degree, passing the bar, and getting a license to practice law is no big deal. Not anymore. More than 40,000 law students do it every year. (That’s just a few more people than starters at the Boston Marathon in 1996.) Anyone with an LSAT score who wants to go to law school will be able to go, because law schools are in it for the money, not the prestige, and loans are easy to get.
I’m not kidding, either. There are even law schools built on the premise that anyone should be able to practice law. Instead of “look to your left, look to your right; one of you won’t be here at graduation,” it’s “look to your left, look to your right; starting networking with the poor schlubs you’ll be sitting next to at your swearing-in ceremony.”
That’s why lawyers have to put up billboards and stay up late worrying about SEO. There is a lot of competition out there. That’s why people are starting to talk about legal services as a commodity. There are a lot of lawyers out there, and many are willing to compete on price. Speaking of price, even the law itself doesn’t merit much respect these days. Courts, prosecutors, and especially public defenders are chronically underfunded. Justice gets short shrift.
Our ethical rules made a lot of sense when lawyers were relatively scarce and could charge high prices to meet high expectations. They make less sense when lawyers are a dime a dozen, and clients’ expectations are as thin as the paper that they think is all they are buying. We let people buy crappy cars, exploding laptops, and lead-filled toys on an open market — why not cheap lawyers without ethical handcuffs?
Because, like it or not, law degrees are a commodity. Lawyers and legal services are, too. We are a dime a dozen — almost literally.
So whether or not we start dropping ethical rules — which I’m not advocating for, by the way — lawyers need to realize that simply becoming a lawyer is not much of an accomplishment. The accomplishment comes later, in becoming a good lawyer. Getting a license to practice law is like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. You still have a long way to go before you finish.
Our profession has shifted from one in which law schools and bar associations were the gatekeepers to one in which the legal market is responsible for sifting the good from the bad, and some clients will get hurt in the process.
A license to practice is not a mark of quality. A reputation built on client service and results is the only mark of quality we have, and that, of course, has gotten easier to fake. Reputations have always been hard for a potential client to assess, especially when it comes to unsophisticated clients. Should we do more to protect clients from licensed-but-incompetent lawyers? Maybe. I don’t think Avvo is the answer, but people who need lawyers also desperately need a way to tell competent lawyers (and good lawyers) from incompetent ones.
But I think we have to start by acknowledging that simply being a lawyer doesn’t make us special. Sure, law school is challenging and graduating is an accomplishment, but it’s not much, in the grand scheme of things. To your clients, your license just qualifies you to provide them with a service — or a commodity, if you do transactional work. All they want is the right service, or the right document. If you screw up, they won’t care about your license then, either, except that it gets them additional recourse if you screwed up unethically.
What your license really is, then, is a lot of extra obligations and liabilities nobody cares about that you get in exchange for the the right to perform services and sell commodities that continue to drop in value. Because being a lawyer doesn’t make you special. Welcome to the marathon. The finish line is 26.2 miles away.
(photo: snowflake isolated on a black background from Shutterstock)