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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Shoddy Legal Work

     In October 2008, at the request of the Allegheny County Solicitor (Pittsburgh, PA), the Institute for Law and Policy Planning conducted a study of the Allegheny County Public Defender's Office. In its report, the Institute, citing lost files, delays, lack of training, poor case preparation, and lousy management, concluded that the public defender's office was "dysfunctional" and wasting millions of taxpayers' dollars. This study came three years after the county signed a settlement agreement related to a class action sit filed by the ACLU in 1996 alleging that the public defender's office performed shoddy defense work, had excessive caseloads and lacked trained staff. As a result of this settlement, the office, among other measures, doubled its staff of attorneys and hired thirteen investigators. The settlement ended in 2005, but problems in the public defender's office--lost files, excessive continuances, lack of preparation, management problems, and lack of attorney incentives to perform well--have, according to its critics, continued.

     The quality of legal services for criminal defendants generally, across the country, has for years been classified by critics as inadequate and substandard. Moreover, many jurisprudence scholars think there are too many third-rate law schools and too many unqualified lawyers practicing in the criminal justice system.

     In a recent New York Times article, Clifford Winston, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that the licensing requirement that practicing lawyers must graduate from American Bar Association accredited law schools and pass state bar examinations has not protected clients from shoddy legal work and incompetence. (This article is based on the author's new book, First Thing We Do, Let's Deregulate All The Lawyers) Winston asserts that the licensing requirements/restrictions, rather than insuring professional quality, simply exist to protect lawyers from competition from non-lawyers and firms that are not lawyer-owned, competition that would reduce legal costs (without sacrificing quality) and give the public greater access to legal assistance. Winston writes: "...the existing legal licensing system doesn't even do a great job at protecting clients from exploitation. In 2009, the state disciplinary agencies that cover roughly one million lawyers practicing in the United States received more than 125,000 complaints....But only 800 of these complaints--a mere 0.6 percent--resulted in disbarment."

     In Clifford Winston's deregulated legal profession: "Legal costs would be reduced because non-lawyers, who have not had to make a costly investment in a three-year legal education, would compete with lawyers, who in many states are the only options for basic services like drafting wills. Because they will have incurred much lower costs to enter the field--like taking an online course or attending a vocational school--and can operate as solo practitioners with minimal overhead, these non-lawyers would force prices to fall...."

     As a libertarian, and unlicensed law school graduate, I like Winston's idea. And having witnessed, up close, many lawyers at work, I know how incompetent (and expensive) they can be. But having lived in the real world, I also know that while pigs may someday fly, Winston's vision of a deregulated legal profession will never become reality. And, I must also admit that while para-legal practitioners can write wills, interview potential clients, handle real estate transactions and the like, I would not like one of them defending me against a charge of first-degree murder.

1 comment:

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