One would think that with 165,000 members of the California State Bar — including 54,000 here in Los Angeles County — finding a lawyer wouldn’t be a problem. Yet much of the Golden State lacks meaningful access to legal services.
Even setting aside the dearth of legal aid lawyers (just one for every 10,000 low-income people), millions of Californians above the poverty line don’t qualify for free legal aid and yet cannot afford lawyers.
For example, 70 to 80 percent of divorce proceedings involve at least one self-represented litigant. In landlord-tenant disputes, the figures are even higher. A majority of these litigants cite cost as a reason for not having an attorney. Not surprisingly, as the average California family law attorney charges over $300 per hour, whereas the average Californian earns less than $27 per hour before taxes.
Nor do these statistics address geographical disparities. Ninety percent of California’s attorneys live and work in just 17 counties, meaning only 10 percent practice law in the other 41 counties where roughly 10 million people, or a quarter of the state’s population, reside. If you live in a rural or remote area, your odds of finding an attorney, let alone affording one, are much lower.
While millions lack access to affordable legal services, the legal profession bemoans the thousands of recent law school graduates who cannot secure employment. But if a newly minted lawyer were to charge modest rates of, say $50 to $100 per hour, many more working class and middle class people might hire them.
So why doesn’t this happen more often? In large part, because the high cost of legal education drives up the cost of legal services.
Last year, the average three-year program tuition for California ABAaccredited law schools was more than $146,000. Although some students receive aid (usually merit-based, not need-based), given cost-of-living loans and interest, many law students graduate with nearly $200,000 in debt. Citing law students’ debt burden, Gov. Brown recently vetoed a proposed 50- hour pro bono requirement for law students.
At these debt levels, with loan repayments of several thousand dollars per month, it is little wonder few lawyers are willing or able to charge more modest rates that less affluent people could afford.
This, in turn, begs the question: why is law school so expensive? A major factor is the ABA accreditation standards. In testimony before a congressional committee, Emory law professor George B. Shepard explained that features provided to satisfy the ABA — such as lifetime faculty tenure and extensive library facilities — account for about half of a law school’s costs, which at most institutions correlate directly to students’ tuition rates.
California provides a natural experiment to demonstrate the cost impacts of accreditation, since it has not only ABAaccredited law schools, but also state-accredited and even fully online schools, like Concord Law School of Kaplan University, to which neither the ABA nor the State Bar currently make accreditation available. Whereas the average annual tuition at an ABA school is about $49,000, the average at state-accredited schools is about $20,000, and at the online law schools is under $10,000 (for four part-time years).
With a total tuition of $40,000, as compared to nearly $150,000 for ABA law schools, graduates of online law schools would be expected to carry far less debt, and so be in a much better position to off er more affordable rates to clients.
It should be no surprise that technology holds the promise of lowering costs and disrupting legal education, just as it has in countless other industries. One might think an online legal education, while affordable, couldn’t possibly compare to the quality of a traditional brick-and-mortar school.
Yet consider the results from the February 2016 California bar exam, the most recent for which data is available. Graduates of online law schools had a first-time pass rate on par with graduates from ABA schools — 44 percent versus 47 percent. Online graduates also passed at a rate that was double that of the fixed-facility state-accredited schools, at 22 percent. (Full disclosure: online students must pass the First Year Law Students Exam to be able to sit for the bar exam.)
Cost is not the only reason traditional law schools inhibit affordable legal services. The curriculum and ethos at many ABA schools channels students toward one goal — working at large firms. But only a quarter of law school graduates join such firms. The rest largely go into small firms or solo practice, if they practice law at all. There is a mismatch between where budding lawyers are directed and where society needs them.
There should be lower-cost law schools that prepare students not only to think like lawyers, but for the business realities of starting a solo practice that caters to the middle market. Online law schools cannot only fill this niche, they can address the aforementioned geographic disparities as well. Law schools, like lawyers, are highly concentrated in metropolitan areas. For example, there are more ABA accredited law schools (five) in Los Angeles County than there are in 40 states. Online schools provide access to students in more remote areas, whose ability to study and practice law shouldn’t be hindered by their ZIP code. Those students, in turn, will be more likely to serve clients in those underrepresented areas upon graduation.
Affordable legal services require affordable legal education, and leveraging technology is the most likely way to do so without compromising quality. The legal profession tends to be slower than other fields in embracing changing technology — or change generally. But the 21st century is here whether we like it or not. Lawyers, take note. Martin Pritikin