Last week, Clifford Winston, drew up some controversy when he suggested that we do away with law school and bar exams and let anyone practice law. According to Winston, these barriers to entry “simply . . . protect lawyers from competition with non-lawyers and firms that are not lawyer-owned — competition that could reduce legal costs and give the public greater access to legal assistance.”
Elie was not convinced. Carolyn Elefant “pick[ed] apart Winston’s assertions piece by piece in an effort to diminish his credibility.” Both Elie and Elefant took issue with Winston’s assertion that costs would go down if non-lawyers were able to practice. Indeed, Elefant cited an example that using Legal Zoom could cost up to three or four times what it would cost a lawyer to perform the same task.
So who is right?
Setting aside the problems with Winston’s factual support, his premise poses a significant threat to small-firm lawyers. If, as Winston suggests, we no longer require law school and state licenses to practice law, law firms would be replaced by law businesses.
At the same time, if corporations — and not just law firms, now structured as partnerships — could provide legal representation, their technological sophistication and economies of scale could offer much more affordable services than established law firms do. These firms, in turn, would have to reduce prices to compete.
With this change, law firms would take after the shopping mall. There would be mom-and-pop shops (the law firm hold-outs) and the massive department stores, both high-end (including a majority of actually trained and licensed attorneys) and discount (a warehouse of untrained and unlicensed practitioners). There might even be a solo practitioner who would become that random guy that set up shop outside the Benetton and The Body Shop who peddles some “exotic” bath salts.
If you were to compare a mall directory fifteen years ago with a directory now, the greatest change you would see is the major decrease — if not complete absence — of those independent stores. In a tough economy, small stores cannot compete with the superstores.
I cannot help but wonder if we were to do away with law school and license requirements, would that mean an end to small law firms? How could a small group of trained and experienced attorneys compete with a superstore of the Winston variety of attorney?
Perhaps this debate is academic, because as my friend aptly pointed out, there are more than enough highly qualified, unemployed individuals with a legal degree that flooding the market with more people with less skills is unlikely to cause a revolution. Nevertheless, I welcome the day when anyone with a Law For Dummies book and some office space can start a small law firm. Just think about how many more people I would have to profile!
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.