The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed piece from a fellow at the Brookings Institution extolling the various social miracles that would transpire if we eliminated legal education and bar licensing as a condition to the practice of law. You can see it here (“Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?”). Three Letters to the Editor commenting on the Op-Ed are reproduced here. Each takes a distinct point of view that is as polemic as the original Op-Ed. Together they comprise a very good and admirably succinct background to a debate on whether law licensure is necessary, what its costs and benefits are, and how well our existing system takes those costs and benefits into account and appropriately balances any tradeoffs. Those among us who teach Professional Responsibility may find this a valuable resource to ground class discussion on the subject.
While in my own view there is a great deal more, and a great deal less, to each contributor's position than their statements suggest, I offer only one comment on these materials here. Conspicuously missing from any of the position pieces (except obliquely in the first Letter to the Editor) is any assessment of the significance of what is in my view the single most salient factor influencing this debate--the fact that it is extremely difficult for nonexperts to determine with any accuracy the quality, efficiency or even need for most of the professional services lawyers provide. Put slightly differently, the eventual result of and the buyer's satisfaction with professional services are exceptionally noisy quality signals. It is little short of astonishing that the "economist" from Brookings who gave us the original Op-Ed should have assumed this issue away, and instead assumed that crowd-sourced lay assessments would adequately inform the market and police for quality and competence.
Law is hardly unique in this regard, of course. Medicine is another obvious example of professional services whose quality and need are very difficult for lay buyers to judge in most instances, both before and after the services are provided. And this phenomenon is a matter of degree for any service involving skill and expertise--think of the extent to which most of us are forced to rely on the judgment of our auto mechanics, plumbers and electricians.
Which is not to suggest that our current requirements for law licensure, or our policing of licensees, are currently optimal in any particular respect. But the world rarely makes any issue of importance as simple as we all might wish.