The Wall Street Journal

Time to Deregulate the Practice of Law

The job market is not looking bright for Americans of all walks of life, even Ivy League college graduates and those with advanced degrees. For example, a new wave of law school graduates has just taken state bar examinations, which they must pass to obtain a license to practice law. But after accumulating as much as $150,000 in law school debt (likely on top of undergraduate debt), many of those test-takers are concerned that jobs in their field are vanishing.

Is there really an excess supply of lawyers? The Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating the subject while the New York Law School and the Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan are being hit with class action suits claiming that they fraudulently inflated employment statistics to lure prospective students. But the solution proffered by many in the legal community—to put new limits on entry into the legal profession—is not the answer and will make the problem worse over the long term.

The reality is that many more people could offer various forms of legal services today at far lower prices if the American Bar Association (ABA) did not artificially restrict the number of lawyers through its accreditation of law schools—most states require individuals to graduate from such a school to take their bar exam—and by inducing states to bar legal services by non-lawyer-owned entities. It would be better to deregulate the provision of legal services. This would lower prices for clients and lead to more jobs.

Occupational licensing limits competition and raises the cost of legal services. But those higher costs are not justified when the services provided by lawyers do not require three years of law school and passing a particular test. One example is LegalZoom.com, an online company which sells simple legal documents—documents that should not require pricey lawyers to prepare—like do-it-yourself wills, uncontested divorce documents, patent applications and the like.

The competition supplied by new legal-service providers, who may or may not have some type of law degree and may even work for a non-lawyer-owned firm, will not only lead to aggressive price competition but also a search for more efficient methods to serve clients.

Every other U.S. industry that has been deregulated, from trucking to telephones, has lowered prices for consumers without sacrificing quality. For example, most regulated large airlines used to operate with large numbers of empty seats, particularly on longer routes. Once deregulation allowed Southwest Airlines, a smaller regional carrier, and other new carriers to offer service on any route, airline fares declined dramatically and the industry operated with far fewer empty seats and more employees. Deregulation of wireless, cellular telephone services and the entry of new carriers has led to the lowest wireless rates in the developed world and stimulated huge expenditures and associated employment in constructing new networks.

Entry by new firms—sometimes from other industries—spurs innovation. The legal industry will be no different. Ford, Honda and Toyota moved into motor vehicle production from bicycle, motorcycle and farm-equipment production, respectively. More recently, Apple moved from computers into mobile telephones (the iPhone), putting enormous competitive pressure on industry giants such as Nokia, Motorola and Research in Motion (Blackberry). The resulting innovations improved quality and lowered prices while also expanding employment.

Allowing accounting firms, management consulting firms, insurance agencies, investment banks and other entities to offer legal services would undoubtedly generate innovations in such services and would force existing law firms to change their way of doing business and to lower prices.

Entry deregulation would also expand individuals' options for preparing for a career in legal services, including attending vocational and online schools and taking apprenticeships without acquiring formal legal education. Established law schools would face pressure to reduce tuition and shorten the time to obtain a degree, which would substantially reduce the debt incurred by those who choose to go to those schools.

Supporters of occupational licensing to restrict the number of lawyers in the U.S. are wrong to assert that deregulation would unleash a wave of unscrupulous or incompetent new entrants into the profession. Large companies seeking advice in complex financial deals would still look to established lawyers, most of whom would probably be trained at traditional law schools but may work for a corporation instead of a law firm.

Others, seeking simpler legal services such as a simple divorce or will, would have an expanded choice of legal-service providers, which they would choose only after consulting the Internet or some other modern channel of information about a provider's track record. Just as the medical field has created physician assistants to deal with less serious cases, the legal profession can delegate simple tasks.

The track record of deregulation naysayers is hardly impressive—after all, some predicted in 1977 that airline deregulation would lead to a United Airlines monopoly. And while we cannot predict all the effects of legal services deregulation, we are confident that those services would be more responsive to consumers and that there would be more jobs in the legal profession.