From the Fordham Law Review comes an article making an important point about American life: it is so intertwined with laws, regulations and procedures that citizens are overwhelmed, and at risk of serious adverse consequences. This provides a function for lawyers, indeed an essential one: allowing citizens of a democracy to be protected and served by laws rather than victimized by them. That is a function lawyers often serve, however, after legal ignorance has raised the specter of harm. From the abstract of Bridget Dunlap’s “Anyone Can Think Like a Lawyer,” which argues for “legal empowerment” for non-lawyers, and the duty of lawyers to provide it:
“Though a person needs a threshold understanding of the law to obey it or enjoy its protection, lawyers in the United States enjoy a near monopoly on knowledge of what the law is and how it works. Widespread ignorance of the law robs it of deterrent effect, deprives those whose rights have been violated of recourse, and undermines deliberative democracy. This Article argues that the low level of legal knowledge in the United States is fundamentally at odds with the ideal of the rule of law and further contemplates a “legal empowerment alternative” for the United States, inspired by the approach Stephen Golub has argued should supplant our lawyer-focused efforts to build democracies abroad. In the U.S. context, legal empowerment would not only require expanded access to legal services, but also a significant commitment to increasing the basic knowledge of nonlawyers. The American legal profession has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to work to counteract the detrimental effects of both the monopoly on legal services and the near monopoly on legal knowledge by promoting and providing basic legal education for the laypeople that the law binds and protects. Laypeople need to be empowered to think more like lawyers; but for this to happen, lawyers will need to “think less like lawyers and more like agents of social change.”
She is correct, and I have been making this point for approximately thirty years, just as my lawyer (but non-practicing) father drilled it into my head while I was still in high school. The abstract made me laugh, however, reflecting on the law grads who have written here, in response to my assertion that a legal education was an invaluable life and career tool whether one ever actually practiced law or not, that they believed a legal education to be a detriment and a career handicap.
Which, of course, says nothing about the usefulness of a legal education, but a great deal about them..unless one is willing to accept the proposition that legal training and understanding are desperately needed by non-lawyers, while lawyers would be better off without them.
Pointer: Legal Ethics Forum