Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A New Order in the Court?

The practice of law in America may soon undergo drastic changes. Early this month, the Law School Admissions Council reported that applications for law school were down 20 percent since the same time a year earlier. If this trend continues throughout the application season, the number of applicants will have fallen by 38 percent since 2010. Those who would have applied in previous years are finding other career paths to pursue, turned off by reports of unemployed law-school grads who are unable to pay off the huge debt they have run up in pursuit of the law degree. The American Bar Association found that only 55 percent of 2011 grads had landed full-time, long-term jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation. Only a dozen law schools, out of a total of 198, had a 2011 job-placement rate of better than 80 percent.

It seems likely that the tough job market for new lawyers will continue to get worse as computer technology advances. Computer programs are being used to do much of the research that lawyers used to do; these apps can rapidly chew through reams of documents to retrieve relevant information for purposes such as pre-trial discovery. Many consumers turn to services such as LegalZoom to create routine legal documents such as wills. And some legal research, contract negotiation, and intellectual property services are being offshored to low-wage countries such as India.

In response to this crisis in the profession, the American Bar Association created a task force to recommend changes to the system that educates lawyers, and it’s a measure of the seriousness of the situation that the commission seems likely to issue its report this fall, well in advance of the original deadline of the following summer.

Some of its possible suggestions are already being aired. Prominent among these is the idea of reducing the core of law school to two years from the current three to lessen the tuition debt that law students incur. Another tuition-saving idea is admitting college juniors directly into law school.

Ironically, at the same time that lawyers are not finding jobs, many Americans are having trouble getting legal aid to navigate the courts and have their rights represented. We are all entitled to a defense lawyer in a criminal case, whether or not we can pay for one, but no such public legal help is guaranteed in civil disputes such as evictions, divorce, and child custody cases. The problem is especially acute in immigration courts, where the availability of professional legal help is known to make a huge difference in outcomes.

So perhaps there is merit in one of the most radical ideas being discussed by the ABA task force: the creation of a new occupation, limited-license legal technicians. In practice, these workers would serve a role vis-à-vis lawyers roughly analogous to the role that advanced practice nurses play vis-à-vis physicians.
This occupation already exists in Washington State, where it was created by the state’s Supreme Court this past June. The occupation is regulated by a Limited License Legal Technician Board. The outlines of how the LLLTs are to be educated and what they will be allowed to do are specified in the Supreme Court’s ruling (PDF).

LLLTs will need to hold an associate or bachelor’s degree in an approved paralegal or legal assistant studies program, together with two years of work in this field. Alternatively, candidates for the license may hold a post-baccalaureate certificate from an approved program in the same field, together with three years of work experience. In both entry routes, at least one year of the work experience must be under the supervision of a Washington lawyer, and candidates must practice at least 20 hours of pro bono service in Washington within the two years before they take the licensing exam.

The work LLLTs do will be limited to civil proceedings. It will largely consist of selecting and completing court forms, informing clients of applicable procedures and time lines, reviewing and explaining pleadings, and identifying additional documents that may be needed in a court proceeding. The technicians will not be allowed to represent clients in court or act on the client’s behalf to contact or negotiate with opposing parties.

The amount of pay that LLLTs will earn is not, of course, something that the Supreme Court can specify. The job market will determine this. I’m curious to see whether the cost-benefit tradeoff for entering this occupation will prove more attractive than it presently does for attorneys.

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