Disaggregating the Professions: Comments on the Law
When I released my original essay on the future of the professions, I was very pleased to receive comments from individuals representing a wide array of professional domains. I was surprised—though, to be frank, not that surprised—that so many of the comments came from lawyers.
I comment here on issues raised specifically by lawyers or by others about the law. (In the next blog, I’ll survey some other professions and non-professions.)
-Law is not a monolith. Roles range from prosecutor to defense lawyer; from corporate ranks to self-employed; from full-time practitioner to teacher to judge; from general practitioner to highly specialized technician. Equally diverse are the clients: individuals; small businesses; non-profits; huge corporations; municipalities; nations; even international courts that purport to represent all of mankind. Any thorough study of the legal profession needs to take into account the attributes, needs, and resources available to individuals wearing these different legal garbs.
-Legal training often does not lead to the practice of law. Even those individuals who are sought after by elite firms may elect to go into business, politics, real estate, or other vocations. And while engaged in these other realms, individuals may or may not draw on their law expertise or even indicate that they have legal training and (if so) whether they have passed the bar.
-There is a huge disjunction between two groups: 1) Well-compensated lawyers who work in “white-shoe” firms for well-resourced clients or corporations; and 2) The far larger number of lawyers who are solitary practitioners or work in small partnerships and who often struggle to make ends meet.
-Despite the aforementioned subdivisions of the law and of legal practice, we cannot conclude that one group of lawyers is more or less likely than the others to behave in a professional (or non-professional) way. There are highly ethical corporate lawyers, litigators, and small-town general practitioners; but there are also members of each of these groups who cut every corner that they can and who may ultimately lose their licenses to practice law or even be sent to jail. As one commentator suggested, instead of regulating lawyers per se, perhaps one should regulate the delivery of legal services, however they are carried out.
-There is today a massive misalignment between where lawyers most want to practice (location, type of practice) and where lawyers are most needed. While attempts have been made to realign supply and demand (e.g. by relieving law school debt for lawyers who enter public service), such options have not succeeded in significantly ameliorating a troubling national (and perhaps global) predicament.
-Lawyers (including those who commented on my essay) disagree with one another about the extent to which, and the ways in which, their work can be handled by paraprofessionals or by software programs. They also disagree about the extent to which the law valorizes logical reasoning, as opposed to human relationships and wise counsel. Some deplore the inbred nature of legal language and reasoning, while others take pride in highly-honed expertise. But nearly all agree that, with respect to the most complicated cases, human judgments by well-trained legal minds are at a premium. And in many cases, a combination of initial software products, then judged and nuanced by trained lawyers, seems the optimal route.
-Recognizing these various points, it remains the case that there is a central tension in the practice of law and in our legal system: does one defend one’s client(s) in every way possible, or does one exercise some restraint—either because of the legal creed one has sworn to uphold or because of one’s personal value system? Other professions are not characterized by so sharp a conflict.
The many valuable distinctions and points made by lawyers underscore the complexity of any professional terrain.
Thanks to commentators Eric Blumenson, Harry Lewis, Edward Montgomery, Eva Nilsen, Sean Palfrey, Andrew Perlman, and “Young Lawyer.”
This is the seventh in a ten-part series in which I respond to the comments received regarding my essay “Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict.” To follow along, click here for a general outline of the planned responses, and check back often for new posts!