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Razing the Bar

In American History, History, Humane Economy, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Liberalism on June 17, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The Freeman.

The bar exam was designed and continues to operate as a mechanism for excluding the lower classes from participation in the legal services market. Elizabeth Olson of the New York Times reports that the bar exam as a professional standard “is facing a new round of scrutiny — not just from the test takers but from law school deans and some state legal establishments.”

This is a welcome development.

Testing what, exactly?

The dean of the University of San Diego School of Law, Stephen C. Ferrulo, complains to the Times that the bar exam “is an unpredictable and unacceptable impediment for accessibility to the legal profession.” Ferrulo is right: the bar exam is a barrier to entry, a form of occupational licensure that restricts access to a particular vocation and reduces market competition.

The bar exam tests the ability to take tests, not the ability to practice law. The best way to learn the legal profession is through tried experience and practical training, which, under our current system, are delayed for years, first by the requirement that would-be lawyers graduate from accredited law schools and second by the bar exam and its accompanying exam for professional fitness.

Freedom of contract

The 19th-century libertarian writer Lysander Spooner, himself a lawyer, opposed occupational licensure as a violation of the freedom of contract, arguing that, once memorialized, all agreements between mutually consenting parties “should not be subjects of legislative caprice or discretion.”

“Men may exercise at discretion their natural rights to enter into all contracts whatsoever that are in their nature obligatory,” he wrote, adding that this principle would prohibit all laws “forbidding men to make contracts by auction without license.”

In more recent decades, Milton Friedman disparaged occupational licensure as “another example of governmentally created and supported monopoly on the state level.” For Friedman, occupational licensure was no small matter. “The overthrow of the medieval guild system,” he said,

was an indispensable early step in the rise of freedom in the Western world. It was a sign of the triumph of liberal ideas.… In more recent decades, there has been a retrogression, an increasing tendency for particular occupations to be restricted to individuals licensed to practice them by the state.

The bar exam is one of the most notorious examples of this “increasing tendency.”

Protecting lawyers from the poor

The burden of the bar exam falls disproportionately on low-income earners and ethnic minorities who lack the ability to pay for law school or to assume heavy debts to earn a law degree. Passing a bar exam requires expensive bar-exam study courses and exam fees, to say nothing of the costly applications and paperwork that must be completed in order to be eligible to sit for the exam. The average student-loan debt for graduates of many American law schools now exceeds $150,000, while half of all lawyers make less than $62,000 per year, a significant drop since a decade ago.

Recent law-school graduates do not have the privilege of reducing this debt after they receive their diploma; they must first spend three to four months studying for a bar exam and then, having taken the exam, must wait another three to four months for their exam results. More than half a year is lost on spending and waiting rather than earning, or at least earning the salary of a licensed attorney (some graduates work under the direction of lawyers pending the results of their bar exam).

When an individual learns that he or she has passed the bar exam, the congratulations begin with an invitation to pay a licensing fee and, in some states, a fee for a mandatory legal-education course for newly admitted attorneys. These fees must be paid before the individual can begin practicing law.

The exam is working — but for whom?

What’s most disturbing about this system is that it works precisely as it was designed to operate.  State bar associations and bar exams are products of big-city politics during the Progressive Era. Such exams existed long before the Progressive Era — Delaware’s bar exam dates back to 1763 — but not until the Progressive Era were they increasingly formalized and institutionalized and backed by the enforcement power of various states.

Threatened by immigrant workers and entrepreneurs who were determined to earn their way out of poverty and obscurity, lawyers with connections to high-level government officials in their states sought to form guilds to prohibit advertising and contingency fees and other creative methods for gaining clients and driving down the costs of legal services. Establishment lawyers felt the entrepreneurial up-and-comers were demeaning the profession and degrading the reputation of lawyers by transforming the practice of law into a business industry that admitted ethnic minorities and others who lacked rank and class. Implementing the bar exam allowed these lawyers to keep allegedly unsavory people and practices out of the legal community and to maintain the high costs of fees and services.

Protecting the consumer

In light of this ugly history, the paternalistic response of Erica Moeser to the New York Times is particularly disheartening. Moeser is the president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. She says that the bar exam is “a basic test of fundamentals” that is justified by “protecting the consumer.” But isn’t it the consumer above all who is harmed by the high costs of legal services that are a net result of the bar exam and other anticompetitive practices among lawyers? To ask the question is to answer it. It’s also unclear how memorizing often-archaic rules to prepare for standardized, high-stakes multiple-choice tests that are administered under stressful conditions will in any way improve one’s ability to competently practice law.

The legal community and consumers of legal services would be better served by the apprenticeship model that prevailed long before the rise of the bar exam. Under this model, an aspiring attorney was tutored by experienced lawyers until he or she mastered the basics and demonstrated his or her readiness to represent clients. The high cost of law school was not a precondition; young people spent their most energetic years doing real work and gaining practical knowledge. Developing attorneys had to establish a good reputation and keep their costs and fees to a minimum to attract clients, gain trust, and maintain a living.

The rise in technology and social connectivity in our present era also means that reputation markets have improved since the early 20th century, when consumers would have had a more difficult time learning by word-of-mouth and secondhand report that one lawyer or group of lawyers consistently failed their clients — or ripped them off. Today, with services like Amazon, eBay, Uber, and Airbnb, consumers are accustomed to evaluating products and service providers online and for wide audiences.  Learning about lawyers’ professional reputations should be quick and easy, a matter of a simple Internet search.  With no bar exam, the sheer ubiquity and immediacy of reputation markets could weed out the good lawyers from the bad, thereby transferring the mode of social control from the legal cartel to the consumers themselves.

Criticism of the high costs of legal bills has not gone away in recent years, despite the drop in lawyers’ salaries and the saturation of the legal market with too many attorneys. The quickest and easiest step toward reducing legal costs is to eliminate bar exams. The public would see no marked difference in the quality of legal services if the bar exam were eliminated, because, among other things, the bar exam doesn’t teach or test how to deliver those legal services effectively.

It will take more than just the grumbling of anxious, aspiring attorneys to end bar-exam hazing rituals. That law school deans are realizing the drawbacks of the bar exam is a step in the right direction. But it will require protests from outside the legal community — from the consumers of legal services — to effect any meaningful change.

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Abolish the Bar Exam

In America, American History, History, Law on July 23, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This article originally appeared here at LewRockwell.comand was reposted on this blog last year in July.  I repost it here again this year for all those who are taking the bar exam this week and next week.

Every year in July, thousands of anxious men and women, in different states across America, take a bar exam in hopes that they will become licensed attorneys. Having memorized hundreds if not thousands of rules and counter-rules — also known as black letter law — these men and women come to the exam equipped with their pens, laptops, and government-issued forms of identification. Nothing is more remote from their minds than that the ideological currents that brought about this horrifying ritual were fundamentally statist and unquestionably bad for the American economy.

The bar exam is a barrier to entry, as are all forms of professional licensure. Today the federal government regulates thousands of occupations and excludes millions of capable workers from the workforce by means of expensive tests and certifications; likewise various state governments restrict upward mobility and economic progress by mandating that workers obtain costly degrees and undergo routinized assessments that have little to do with the practical, everyday dealings of the professional world.

As a practicing attorney, I can say with confidence that many paralegals I know can do the job of an attorney better than some attorneys, and that is because the practice of law is perfected not by abstract education but lived experience.

So why does our society require bar exams that bear little relation to the ability of a person to understand legal technicalities, manage case loads, and satisfy clients? The answer harkens back to the Progressive Era when elites used government strings and influence to prevent hardworking and entrepreneurial individuals from climbing the social ladder.

Lawyers were part of two important groups that Murray Rothbard blamed for spreading statism during the Progressive Era: the first was “a growing legion of educated (and often overeducated) intellectuals, technocrats, and the ‘helping professions’ who sought power, prestige, subsidies, contracts, cushy jobs from the welfare state, and restrictions of entry into their field via forms of licensing,” and the second was “groups of businessmen who, after failing to achieve monopoly power on the free market, turned to government — local, state, and federal — to gain it for them.”

The bar exam was merely one aspect of the growth of the legal system and its concomitant centralization in the early twentieth century. Bar associations began cropping up in the 1870s, but they were, at first, more like professional societies than state-sponsored machines. By 1900, all of that changed, and bar associations became a fraternity of elites opposed to any economic development that might threaten their social status. The elites who formed the American Bar Association (ABA), concerned that smart and savvy yet poor and entrepreneurial men might gain control of the legal system, sought to establish a monopoly on the field by forbidding advertising, regulating the “unauthorized” practice of law, restricting legal fees to a designated minimum or maximum, and scaling back contingency fees. The elitist progressives pushing these reforms also forbade qualified women from joining their ranks.

The American Bar Association was far from the only body of elites generating this trend. State bars began to rise and spread, but only small percentages of lawyers in any given state were members. The elites were reaching to squeeze some justification out of their blatant discrimination and to strike a delicate balance between exclusivity on the one hand, and an appearance of propriety on the other. They made short shrift of the American Dream and began to require expensive degrees and education as a prerequisite for bar admission. It was at this time that American law schools proliferated and the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) was created to evaluate the quality of new law schools as well as to hold them to uniform standards.

At one time lawyers learned on the job; now law schools were tasked with training new lawyers, but the result was that lawyers’ real training was merely delayed until the date they could practice, and aspiring attorneys had to be wealthy enough to afford this delay if they wanted to practice at all.

Entrepreneurial forces attempted to fight back by establishing night schools to ensure a more competitive market, but the various bar associations, backed by the power of the government, simply dictated that law school was not enough: one had to first earn a college degree before entering law school if one were to be admitted to practice. Then two degrees were not enough: one had to pass a restructured, formalized bar exam as well.

Bar exams have been around in America since the eighteenth century, but before the twentieth century they were relaxed and informal and could have been as simple as interviewing with a judge. At the zenith of the Progressive Era, however, they had become an exclusive licensing agency for the government. It is not surprising that at this time bar associations became, in some respects, as powerful as the states themselves. That’s because bar associations were seen, as they are still seen today, as agents and instrumentalities of the state, despite that their members were not, and are not, elected by the so-called public.

In our present era, hardly anyone thinks twice of the magnificent powers exercised and enjoyed by state bar associations, which are unquestionably the most unquestioned monopolies in American history. What other profession than law can claim to be entirely self-regulated? What other profession than law can go to such lengths to exclude new membership and to regulate the industry standards of other professions?

Bar associations remain, on the whole, as progressive today as they were at their inception. Their calls for pro bono work and their bias against creditors’ attorneys, to name just two examples, are wittingly or unwittingly part of a greater movement to consolidate state power and to spread ideologies that increase dependence upon the state and “the public welfare.” It is rare indeed to find the rhetoric of personal responsibility or accountability in a bar journal. Instead, lawyers are reminded of their privileged and dignified station in life, and of their unique position in relation to “members of the public.”

The thousands of men and women who will sit for the bar exam this month are no doubt wishing they didn’t have to take the test. I wish they didn’t have to either; there should be no bar exam because such a test presupposes the validity of an authoritative entity to administer it. There is nothing magical about the practice of law; all who are capable of doing it ought to have a chance to do it. That will never happen, of course, if bar associations continue to maintain total control of the legal profession. Perhaps it’s not just the exam that should go.

Abolish the Bar Exam

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America on July 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here at LewRockwell.com.

Every year in July, thousands of anxious men and women, in different states across America, take a bar exam in hopes that they will become licensed attorneys. Having memorized hundreds if not thousands of rules and counter-rules — also known as black letter law — these men and women come to the exam equipped with their pens, laptops, and government-issued forms of identification. Nothing is more remote from their minds than that the ideological currents that brought about this horrifying ritual were fundamentally statist and unquestionably bad for the American economy.

The bar exam is a barrier to entry, as are all forms of professional licensure. Today the federal government regulates thousands of occupations and excludes millions of capable workers from the workforce by means of expensive tests and certifications; likewise various state governments restrict upward mobility and economic progress by mandating that workers obtain costly degrees and undergo routinized assessments that have little to do with the practical, everyday dealings of the professional world.

As a practicing attorney, I can say with confidence that many paralegals I know can do the job of an attorney better than some attorneys, and that is because the practice of law is perfected not by abstract education but lived experience.

So why does our society require bar exams that bear little relation to the ability of a person to understand legal technicalities, manage case loads, and satisfy clients? The answer harkens back to the Progressive Era when elites used government strings and influence to prevent hardworking and entrepreneurial individuals from climbing the social ladder.

Lawyers were part of two important groups that Murray Rothbard blamed for spreading statism during the Progressive Era: the first was “a growing legion of educated (and often overeducated) intellectuals, technocrats, and the ‘helping professions’ who sought power, prestige, subsidies, contracts, cushy jobs from the welfare state, and restrictions of entry into their field via forms of licensing,” and the second was “groups of businessmen who, after failing to achieve monopoly power on the free market, turned to government — local, state, and federal — to gain it for them.”

The bar exam was merely one aspect of the growth of the legal system and its concomitant centralization in the early twentieth century. Bar associations began cropping up in the 1870s, but they were, at first, more like professional societies than state-sponsored machines. By 1900, all of that changed, and bar associations became a fraternity of elites opposed to any economic development that might threaten their social status.

The elites who formed the American Bar Association (ABA), concerned that smart and savvy yet poor and entrepreneurial men might gain control of the legal system, sought to establish a monopoly on the field by forbidding advertising, regulating the “unauthorized” practice of law, restricting legal fees to a designated minimum or maximum, and scaling back contingency fees. The elitist progressives pushing these reforms also forbade qualified women from joining their ranks.

The American Bar Association was far from the only body of elites generating this trend. State bars began to rise and spread, but only small percentages of lawyers in any given state were members. The elites were reaching to squeeze some justification out of their blatant discrimination and to strike a delicate balance between exclusivity on the one hand, and an appearance of propriety on the other. They made short shrift of the American Dream and began to require expensive degrees and education as a prerequisite for bar admission. It was at this time that American law schools proliferated and the American Association of Law Schools (AALS) was created to evaluate the quality of new law schools as well as to hold them to uniform standards.

At one time lawyers learned on the job; now law schools were tasked with training new lawyers, but the result was that lawyers’ real training was merely delayed until the date they could practice, and aspiring attorneys had to be wealthy enough to afford this delay if they wanted to practice at all.

Entrepreneurial forces attempted to fight back by establishing night schools to ensure a more competitive market, but the various bar associations, backed by the power of the government, simply dictated that law school was not enough: one had to first earn a college degree before entering law school if one were to be admitted to practice. Then two degrees were not enough: one had to pass a restructured, formalized bar exam as well.

Bar exams have been around in America since the eighteenth century, but before the twentieth century they were relaxed and informal and could have been as simple as interviewing with a judge. At the zenith of the Progressive Era, however, they had become an exclusive licensing agency for the government. It is not surprising that at this time bar associations became, in some respects, as powerful as the states themselves. That’s because bar associations were seen, as they are still seen today, as agents and instrumentalities of the state, despite that their members were not, and are not, elected by the so-called public.

In our present era, hardly anyone thinks twice of the magnificent powers exercised and enjoyed by state bar associations, which are unquestionably the most unquestioned monopolies in American history. What other profession than law can claim to be entirely self-regulated? What other profession than law can go to such lengths to exclude new membership and to regulate the industry standards of other professions?

Bar associations remain, on the whole, as progressive today as they were at their inception. Their calls for pro bono work and their bias against creditors’ attorneys, to name just two examples, are wittingly or unwittingly part of a greater movement to consolidate state power and to spread ideologies that increase dependence upon the state and “the public welfare.” It is rare indeed to find the rhetoric of personal responsibility or accountability in a bar journal. Instead, lawyers are reminded of their privileged and dignified station in life, and of their unique position in relation to “members of the public.”

The thousands of men and women who will sit for the bar exam this month are no doubt wishing they didn’t have to take the test. I wish they didn’t have to either; there should be no bar exam because such a test presupposes the validity of an authoritative entity to administer it. There is nothing magical about the practice of law; all who are capable of doing it ought to have a chance to do it. That will never happen, of course, if bar associations continue to maintain total control of the legal profession. Perhaps it’s not just the exam that should go.

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