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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lawyers As Serfs?: Fed Judge Proposes Lawyers' Corps For Immigration

The devaluation and degradation of America's professions continues.

A New York federal judge proposes forming a lawyers' corps -- mostly of newbie lawyers with soon-to-retire mentors -- to handle the growing immigration case backlog that plagues many federal courts around the country.  The corps would rely on private money and government subsidies; in other words, government money will be spent under this plan to provide legal help for noncitizens who "need" legal representation.  As there is no mention of what the immigrants -- legal, illegal, asylum seeker or otherwise -- would pay, it is reasonable to assume they would get their lawyers for free.  Well, free for them.  For the taxpayer, not so free.

Such proposals will hurt most lawyers, particularly those in small firms in the private sector who must be entrepreneurial.  That is because every program to "provide legal services to the needy" (and every word in that phrase deserves the quotations) conditions the population to receive and expect free lawyers, as if it is an entitlement, a right.  There are several consequences of such proposals.

First, the provision of free services -- legal or otherwise -- implies the value of those services is, well, close to zero.  Retailers know this when they do fire sales and dump inventory at markdowns of 80-90%.  This type of program will tell a segment of the population: (1) lawyers' services aren't worth very much, (2) don't go to a private lawyer, go to a lawyer for free through our program, and (3) you have a right to a free lawyer.  

The third message undermines the private bar, but also sends a frustrating message to middle-class and lower-class citizens: you don't get a free lawyer, and you get to pay for others (who may or may not deserve to even be in the country) to try to endlessly plead their case in the courts in an effort to outrun the immigration authorities until mass amnesty is declared.   There is little more discouraging than to have the hard-working, urban poor, struggling to get ahead, forced to see and to pay for subsidies for others who may be less deserving (or not deserving at all) of a government (or hybrid private/public partnership) subsidy.

The effects on the legal profession will not be positive.  Such proposals will be the first step towards forcing lawyers into collectives, much like doctors are being forced through economic disincentives into selling their small practices and working as salaried employees (for less pay but with less hours) of hospitals.  There is likely to be another economic result (possibly intended): Good lawyers will abandon the practice of law for other pursuits which pay more.  When attorneys are faced with declining revenue, increasing regulation and a growing public backlash to the profession as a whole, this becomes an attractive option.

The larger picture is not good.  Economic pressures on the private, entrepreneurial segment of the legal profession, combined with the economic pressures on the middle-class, threaten to make quality legal representation for the middle class scarce as capable and honest attorneys leave the practice of law, leaving the profession to the cookie-cutter paralegal mills (technically, supervised by one or two lawyers) who will be positioned to take advantage of the poorest and most uneducated segments of the population.

This free immigration lawyer service will be the product of a do-gooder proposal, floated by a federal judge whose grasp of economic realities may not comport with the economic reality.  New York federal judge Robert Katzmann has little excuse for such detachment from reality; his court, at 500 Pearl Street in Manhattan, is literally just across the street from a burgeoning slum still known as Chinatown.  Others in the legal profession, who may have graduated from The School of Hard Knocks and/or been raised in economically disadvantaged environments, know that the actual impact will probably be negative.

But for the progressive, professional class, which measures the value of charity not by its impact on the purportedly-targeted population but by the improvement in their own self-esteem, such adverse realities will be of no consequence.

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