Several recent articles, including this one in the New York Times have described the bursting of the law school bubble, with record low numbers of law school applicants in response to increasing tuition and declining job prospects for graduates. However, the United States is faced with a growing legal services gap, where only the richest Americans can afford the exorbitant hourly rates needed to hire a lawyer to help them with legal matters. With the demand for legal services increasing, why is there a decrease in the supply of people who can provide legal assistance?
The answer lies in the overly restrictive licensing system that governs who may provide legal assistance. Law schools are propped up by the requirement that anyone practicing law (with very few exceptions) be a graduate of a three-year law school program. "Practicing law" is defined so broadly in most states that it applies to anyone offering any kind of advice or service that has an impact on legal rights. Therefore, anyone who wants to make a career out of helping people with legal matters, no matter how simple, must pay for and attend three years of law school, or face prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law.
Want to help tenants with housing issues? Working for a tenants' rights organization and taking some courses in housing law would be a good way of learning the law and procedure regarding these issues, but without a J.D. you won't be allowed to give advice to a single tenant. Want to help people draft forms to write a will or get an uncontested divorce? You may have done so for twenty years as a paralegal working for a $300-an-hour lawyer, but without three years of education at a cost of over $200,000, you won't be allowed to offer those services directly to customers at a far lower cost.
To fix this disconnect between supply and demand, we need to allow a wider range of service providers, with training appropriate to the tasks they are performing. This could take the form of intermediate-level licenses for limited types of services. For example, a licensed social worker could be allowed to perform divorce-related legal services, either by virtue of her existing license or with some additional testing or coursework. California and Arizona (soon to be joined by Washington) allow licensed document preparers to provide services directly to consumers.
In the field of health, we don't require everyone to get a medical degree to provide services. Nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and physicians' assistants have less burdensome educational requirements. Massage therapists don't have any formal degree requirements and usually have a simple testing and coursework requirement for their licenses. Fitness trainers aren't required to have any licensing to guide people through exercise and diet regimens. In the field of law, however, we require everyone providing services to have a law degree. That's like requiring your massage therapist or your spin class teacher to have a medical degree!
If we right-size legal training to the types of services we're training people to provide, then the deflated law school bubble will consist of schools that train lawyers to deal with the most complex legal matters. At the same time, states could experiment with other models of licensing and training for simpler legal services, so that people with a desire to work in the field of law could be trained at a lower cost. These service providers, who would not face crushing law school debt, would be able to provide services to consumers at an affordable rate, easing the access to justice burden.