The time is ripe. The regulatory scheme for U.S. lawyers is incoherent. Its fundamental features are almost a century old. Think about what the world was like 80 years ago when the State Bar of Michigan was created. Think about the changes in the world just in your lifetime. Even for the youngest member of the State Bar, the changes have been breathtaking. But the regulatory framework has not fundamentally changed. It’s a patchwork of 51 flavors of the same formula: an undergraduate education + 3-year J.D. education + bar exam + continued licensing based on adherence to a common profession-driven code of ethics + government-backed sanctions for those who engage in the practice of law outside of this regulatory framework.
That system was coherent when it was created because there was a societal agreement about what the practice of law was and about lawyers’ monopoly of it. That agreement, and thus the coherence of the regulatory structure, is breaking down. This has been a slow-rolling breakdown caused by many factors, but it is been greatly accelerated by the Internet. Evidence of the breakdown: the continuous narrowing of successful unauthorized practice of law litigation, the blurring of practice and jurisdictional boundaries as people and business become more mobile, the rise of commercial providers outside the traditional model (LegalZoom, Axiom, Avvo, etc.), and the dramatic rise in pro se litigants.
The titans of Silicon Valley believe that it is too late for the profession to rebuild coherence through reform of the current model or construction of a new attorney self-regulation model. Indeed, some probably believe that it has always been too late, that the collapse of the current model is inevitable and that given the erosion in the common public understanding of what lawyers do and its value, our regulatory scheme is a hollowed-out house of cards.
The State Bar's 21st Century Practice Task Force is a bet that we can rebuild coherence. The Task Force volunteers and the staff supporting the Task Force are the chips we are using to place the bet.
So what is it about Michigan that makes us think this bet is worth making? Why are we so special? Three reasons:
First, no other state of the union has experienced economic disruption in the modern era as profoundly as Michigan. I think that experience, and the sense that we have touched bottom and have survived, has made us less protective of the status quo, more open to trying new ideas. That mentality fueled the Judicial Crossroads Task Force , which helped catalyze judicial branch change. We are seeing the new mentality playing out as the Michigan Supreme Court takes the lead nationally in pioneering change in the court services.
Second, Michigan is a microcosm of the national challenge to lawyer regulation – we have 5 very different law school models, a full range of law practice including dynamic global practices, and an engaged state bar and state bar foundation that have been leaders in thinking about the evolution of the practice of law.
Third, we are less regulated than 46 other states. Specifically, while he have a top-rated institute for continuing legal education, we have no institutional investment in mandatory continuing legal education, giving us more room for creative solutions.
Other states have created commissions or task forces to study the future of legal services. But only Michigan is trying to put all of the pieces together by bringing players from all parts of the system together.
It's our time to create the best legal future. Join us.