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Journal of Legal Education




Discussion about the value of a law degree has focused on the financial success of lawyers. Both defenders and critics of the existing legal education model largely ignore the implications that the cost of legal education and high lawyer fees have on access to justice. While a lawyer’s ability to make a decent living must be addressed when determining the value of a legal education, we fail to take into account the fact that there are millions of individuals in the U.S. who cannot find a lawyer to represent them when they need one. For advocates who believe that our legal system must provide alternatives other than pro bono and market-rate fee models, the current conversation about the future of legal education offers an opportunity to advance the case for an agenda that promotes affordable legal services to keep Main Street lawyers solvent and to expand access to justice for the masses.

This article argues that the value of a legal education for most law school graduates can be enhanced by their ability to earn a decent living and also help to address the unmet legal needs of individuals who cannot afford the prevailing cost of legal representation. To determine whether a legal education is worth it, prospective lawyers must be better informed about where the majority of lawyers work, whom they represent and how they make a living. This picture may be a different reality than contemporary media portrayals of “successful lawyers” which primarily portray courtroom snapshots or law as practiced in the downtown offices of corporate America. For many lawyers, this reality will mean planning for the economic challenges posed by high educational debt and a market demand for affordable legal services on Main Street.

Main Street lawyers primarily offer legal services to individuals or to community business interests versus corporate interests. They constitute the largest sector of the private bar and, as a result, are the lawyers most often responsible for ensuring access to justice for the majority of low and moderate- income individuals. Main Street lawyers earn lower salaries than their counterparts in large firms and experience greater financial instability than their peers in the government and public interest sectors. Main Street lawyers are primarily the products of less prestigious law schools. The conversation about the cost and value of legal education must take into account not just the economic viability of Main Street lawyers but also the clients they serve. Law school regulators must consider how to restructure legal education to permit Main Street lawyers to establish viable law practices that promote access to justice by providing affordable legal services.

Part I offers a brief overview of legal services delivery to low- and moderate- income Americans. It challenges the dogma that there are too many lawyers by focusing on the needs of individual consumers. Part II discusses the financial woes of the legal profession as a market failure prompted by the monopoly of elite lawyers and the inflationary impact that their policies have on the rest of the profession. By acknowledging the existing framework where Main Street lawyers occupy the bottom rung, the legal profession can begin to identify more egalitarian approaches to legal education and legal service delivery. Part III encourages the American Bar Association (ABA) to depart from a “one- size fits-all” accreditation program to a model that encourages law schools to develop models that are more responsive to the needs of Main Street lawyers and non-elite client interests. The article concludes by affirming the importance of Main Street lawyers in delivering greater access to affordable legal services. Without such lawyers, the profession effectively concedes that only elite interests and the very poor are deserving of representation.

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Association of American Law Schools

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