Paying Proper Attention to Basic Principles

I recently heard a respected lawyer comment that if the legal profession allows disputes to be resolved outside of traditional legal systems, then we cannot ensure that proper attention will be paid to basic legal principles of fairness, justice and the rule of law.

That got me wondering, do lawyers have a monopoly not only on legal practice, but also on fairness, justice and rule of law? Are we the sole keepers of these ideals, delivered to us by governments who wisely recognized that only those called to the profession of law could meet the responsibility of ensuring adherence? (And if so, is this a reason why we’re so afraid of innovations in delivery of legal services that include multi-disciplinary practices, outside ownership of law firms, online dispute resolutions processes and delivery of legal services by trained legal technicians?)

To be sure, lawyers do serve many vital functions in our communities, including smoothing out disputes and ensuring stability and predictability in how systems operate. These functions have traditionally been within the domain of the legal profession, but there are certainly some tasks lawyers have traditionally undertaken that others can also do, and in some cases, can do much better, while paying equivalent attention to the principles of justice.

The burgeoning consumer demand for legal services delivered by those outside the legal profession is a signal that lawyers are not adequately meeting the needs of those who require such services. Meanwhile, continued emphasis on hourly billing and churning out work supports the view that lawyers selfishly place their own interests ahead of their clients’ interests.

As a profession, we’ve historically been entrusted with the privilege of promoting and protecting the rule of law, but we don’t own it or have rights to it other than those granted to us. And I suggest we also do not have the right to stand in the way when citizens, for whose benefit the rule of law exists, choose to place their trust in someone else because we have failed to place their needs ahead of our own.

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