The Origins of the Supreme Court Bar: The Political Economy of Legal Services

 Jeremy Pilaar –

Why do the laws underlying capitalism so heavily favor the wealthy and corporations? One answer, according to my research, lies in the political economy of the legal profession. At the most elite level of the profession sits the Supreme Court bar, lawyers with enormous influence over key rules that structure market relations. In a recent piece, I trace the origins of the Supreme Court bar to better understand the Court’s rightward shift.

Over the past several years, the Court has used its power to give corporations a significant edge over average Americans—making it harder for consumers and employees to hold companies responsible for unlawful behavior, more difficult for workers to form a union, and easier for firms to engage in monopolistic practices and spend unlimited sums on elections.

Though part of this is due to the appointment of increasingly pro-business justices, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus has shown that the Supreme Court bar has also played a role. This bar consists of the attorneys admitted to argue before the justices. As Lazarus and others have revealed, a handful of these lawyers appears before the Court much more frequently than the rest. This elite group also disproportionately works on behalf of large corporations, skewing the Court’s docket in favor of business and deepening the competitive imbalance between big companies and their opponents.

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Techno-utopian, Cyclical, Political: Reconsidering the Path of Legal Employment

Frank Pasquale –

About a decade ago, when legal employment dipped sharply, there was a raging debate on the future of the legal profession. Some said the drop reflected a permanent decrease in legal work. The logic here was simple: computers were increasingly capable of completing more sophisticated projects. Having eclipsed paralegals in some document review tasks, they would, we were assured, soon supplant attorneys at writing briefs. These techno-utopians also evoked (what they called) a market logic: the more competition pressed firms to become more efficient, the more software they would deploy.*

Others saw the dip in employment as cyclical. It wasn’t just lawyers who suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis; employment in many fields fell. A drop in effective demand was shrinking the economy as a whole. The cyclical school predicted that when the economy rebounded, jobs for attorneys would also recover.

I will not attempt to adjudicate the dispute here. The most vehement techno-utopians, who predicted mass closures of law schools, the “end of BigLaw,” and obsolescence for attorneys, have ended up looking silly. The legal profession did not become the modern-day equivalent of buggy-whip manufacture. Even paralegal employment has been on the rise. In the broader economy, the techno-utopian story has fared even worse. One of its prime policy ideas—the notion of a “skills gap” crippling the economy thanks to workers’ lack of education—has been widely debunked. On the other hand, fewer persons are becoming lawyers today—an indication that the field is shrinking in some areas, to the chagrin of cyclical-ists.

Each approach is performative, in the sense that it not merely describes the world, but also prescribes future action. From a techno-utopian perspective, it is good to see fewer Americans becoming attorneys, because so many are performing roles that can be automated. From a cyclical perspective, growth in the number of lawyers is a positive trend, since it both reflects and manifests more economic growth generally. But it is possible that each of these economics-driven schools of thought is missing a bigger picture issue: namely, the political and social valence of legal work and its fair compensation. That is where discussions of the legal profession need a political economy perspective, rather than a merely economic one.

This political economy perspective should encompass many concerns. This post focuses on two: the beneficiaries of legal work, and its nature. My main point is that then trends which both techno-utopians and cyclical-ists celebrate as vindicating their own points of view, are ambiguous as to their effects on society generally.

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The Real Barriers to Access to Justice: A Labor Market Perspective

Frank Pasquale – 

There is a vast literature on access to justice in the United States. In what Sameer Asher has diagnosed as a broadly neoliberal discourse, the legal profession itself stars as the key barrier to access to justice: It is slow to adopt technology, restricts entry with excessive licensure requirements, and bogs down in technicalities. Let’s assume, for now, that these are fair charges.* Are they really the reason why so many consumers feel unable to fight giant corporations, or why employees feel trampled by the fissured workplace?

I’d like us to keep in mind a few other factors. The evisceration of class actions, the rise of arbitration, boilerplate contracts—all these make the judicial system an increasingly vestigial organ in consumer disputes. You cannot read a book like Lewis Maltby’s Can They Do That? without recognizing that the powerlessness of most workers is not the result of a paucity of lawyers (especially in an country with more per capita than almost any other), or greedy firms overcharging for services. It is, instead, the result of a web of rules woven by lobbyists and elite attorneys over decades with the intent of making the firm, in effect, a private government. Corporations have skillfully funded candidates in state judicial elections (or politicians who appoint judges) who promote their vision of a stripped-down, nightwatchman state. Make lawyers as cheap and skilled as you want—they can’t help victims access justice if the laws themselves are systematically slanted against them. The same goes for #legaltech: I expect every innovation to, say, create apps to help the evicted to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of money backing services like ClickNotices.

On the criminal side, the underfunding of public defenders (and other advocates for those targeted by the carceral state) is shameful. From a supply-side perspective, the answer here may be to cheapen training and thereby double the number of public defenders, so that states could perhaps hire two at $24,000 a year instead of one at $48,000. I do not believe that’s a great solution. As long as there are $1.5 trillion tax cuts flying around (mainly to top income brackets), and 1412 households in the US making over $59 million annually, I’d put forward a vision for more spending on these vital services, at a good wage, with a strong Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The latter should not even be considered a subsidy, given the vast profits the government has made on student loans generally, and the market’s systemic undervaluation of public service work. I realize that policy is going in the opposite direction now—but let’s also realize how much that development is driven by private lenders’ lobbyists, who want to make the federal student loan program a quicksand of confusing paperwork and high interest rates in order to make their own products comparatively more attractive.

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