The legal industry needs a complete overhaul. Up to 90% of Americans can't afford a lawyer for basic services. The industry's response: Dig in and fight any effort to fix an obviously broken system. Powerful lawyers, judges, and regulators who profit from the status quo have successfully resisted any meaningful advances under the guise of "public protection". But that may be changing. Here are five reasons why.
Demand Is Dropping. Most economic analyses show the American legal industry booming. The U.S. accounts for a little less than half of a global legal services market valued at over $900 billion dollars. But between 80% and 90% of Americans can't afford a lawyer. According to one study, annual per consumer spending on attorneys stagnated between 2007 and 2021 at approximately $157.00. So the market's growth is fueled by the biggest companies and highest earners. Looking at the economy as whole (and not through the rose-colored glasses of Biglaw and its wealthy clients), overall economic demand for legal services is actually dropping as more people are priced out of the market.
There Are Too Many Lawyers. There are over 1.3 million lawyers in the United States. According to one study, 145,600 of those attorneys work at the 200 biggest law firms (Biglaw) and another 115,770 are in house. A 2019 ABA survey found that almost two-thirds work either as solos or in firms with fewer than 10 practitioners. While Biglaw profits are rising fast, the remaining one million-plus lawyers are competing for a rapidly shrinking pool of qualified prospects. To survive financially, small firms and solos will have to find innovative ways to provide services. As a result, they will push hard for regulatory reforms that benefit more than just the wealthiest American consumers and lawyers. Those fighting to maintain the status quo - Biglaw, other influential attorneys, judges, and bureaucrats - are not only vastly outnumbered, they will have a difficult time justifying keeping the system as is.
CoVid. The economic upheaval caused by CoVid lockdowns forced lawyers to change their business routines virtually overnight. Zoom hearings replaced live trials. Online depositions became the norm. The need to adapt quickly to handle the crisis highlighted the many different ways lawyers can use technology to provide services more efficiently. It even forced some jurisdictions to (at least temporarily) rethink arcane regulations. New Jersey and Tennessee dropped the moronic rule requiring attorneys to attend live CLE events instead of getting credits online. Washington, D.C. lifted its prohibition against lawyers not licensed in the District from doing any legal work there (even speaking on the phone to a client calling from a state in which a lawyer was licensed was the unauthorized practice of law). Reinstating outdated rules won't go over well with most lawyers or the public that needs them.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners. The National Conference of Bar Examiners ("NCBEX") coordinates the states' administration of the bar exam. Its conduct during CoVid was a combination of utter incompetence and thinly-veiled self-dealing. In 2020, as the virus spread throughout the country, NCBEX lobbied heavily for continuing live "super-spreader" tests that even the American Bar Association wanted postponed. When in-person testing was finally suspended, NCBEX failed miserably to administer functional online exams. In response to proposals to replace the bar with other licensing methods, NCBEX published its own propaganda, commissioning a poll of mostly non-lawyers that showed a majority favored the bar exam. Its president threatened outspoken dissenters with adverse character and fitness reports. We also learned that some states have draconian testing policies. Arizona wouldn't let women bring their own tampons to the exam site. Alabama prohibited applicants from using the bathroom for extended periods of time. Publicizing the petty abuses of petty bureaucreats brought into full relief the reality that some regulators are not the champions of public protection they claim to be. These realizations motivated many lawyers to actively advocate for wholesale changes.
Bad Advocacy. It's admittedly difficult to defend a system that makes access to justice a luxury item. Repeated claims that antiquated ethics rules and unauthorized practice of law statutes exist for "public protection" are risible. Who's being protected? The 10% of Americans who can afford lawyers? Or the 90% who can't? Fortunately, advocates for maintaining the status quo aren't making compelling arguments. One California personal injury lawyer decried "creat[ing] new pathways to legal services" as a "wolf in sheep's clothing", claiming that these are "code words" for "nonlawyer ownership of law firms". He maintained that corporations backed by venture capital will put "profits over the best interests of clients" (as though attorneys never do that). But he conceded his underlying concern: That interdisciplinary collaboration will "squeeze traditional plaintiff's law firms out of their markets" and lead to "tort reform". Another California attorney called a state paraprofessional program "a cyborg sent to initiate the end of lawyer representation of humans." Pushing back against desperately needed reform because it threatens your business model or bottom line is hardly compelling. Neither are histrionics dreamt up while watching Battlestar Galactica reruns. Besides, justifying leaving 90% of Americans without access to justice because you aren't inclined to adapt to modern economic realities smacks of putting profits over the best interests of people. Defending the indefensible won't be easy.