What if we all woke up tomorrow and discovered that a law license was no longer required to give legal advice? What would happen?
The legal job market has led to much-justified teeth-gnashing and finger-pointing. The fact that the current educational and licensure system continues to annually churn out thousands of unneeded and unemployable law license holders during a long, deep economic downturn has led to a number of calls for change. But one idea that has been around for quite a while, but hasn’t gotten serious attention, is that all Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) statutes should be repealed, and anyone who wants to try giving legal advice should be allowed to do it.
That isn’t going to happen any time soon, and I won’t try to convince you that it should, because I think that’s coming at the problem from the wrong direction. But I think it’s fascinating to speculate about what would occur in the legal marketplace if it did happen. What would legal service consumers, lawyers, and law schools do? It’s a question way too big for one post, but let’s start with what consumers of legal services would experience if the law license requirement were gone. Let’s begin by considering those who need legal advice and help but can’t afford to hire attorneys.
Empowering Experts, or Releasing the Hounds?
People who can’t afford to hire attorneys are currently doing without them. (The exception is in serious criminal cases, where they get a public defender who is trying to avoid burn-out and despair while carrying an absurdly heavy caseload.) These folks wait for months for a public-interest organization to find time for them, or they simply go it alone.
If one did not need a law license to advise these folks, it’s safe to assume that people would start doing so. But who? It seems likely that the same people who prey on the poor in other ways would probably start to open “Legal Services” shops. This is the concern that many lawyers immediately express when the idea of repealing UPL statutes comes up. It’s a legitimate concern.
But any lawyer with experience giving the kinds of legal advice that low-income people need (and can’t get) know that there are many, many non-lawyers who know family, child protection, housing, and other civil law areas as well as any lawyer. They work in these areas every day as court clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries. These experts would have an opportunity to start charging for their expertise, and since they would not need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a law degree, they could charge a lot less for their services and still make a profit. There would be competent, honest alternatives to the predators. Every lawyer knows that one’s reputation determines how many referrals one gets, and how much money one makes— and that goes for accountants, mediators, and lots of other professionals who are not licensed. It’s not crazy to suggest that the predators would quickly fade away, and the long-term overall effect on lower-income people would be positive.