USA Network’s “Suits,” currently in its fourth season, features the life of Mike Ross, a genius with a troubled childhood who stumbled (literally) into an interview for a position as a lawyer with the top firm in New York City. There was a problem, however. Mike Ross wasn’t a lawyer. He didn’t go to law school nor pass the bar exam. But he was smarter than any of the recent Harvard law graduates. And when Harvey Spector, a partner at the firm, sees how smart Ross is, he decides to hire him anyway.
Ross and Spector form a great team. They trade witty rejoinders and provide incredible service for their clients. But in the United States, for the most part, it is illegal to practice law without passing the bar exam. That Ross is practicing law illegally — and what he must do to avoid being discovered – provides part of the show’s drama. While I find the show entertaining, it troubles me because these types of situations happen in real life. There are people who would be good at a job, but restrictions make it illegal for them to work. The show raises a good question: If somebody wanted to pay a non-lawyer for legal advice/representation, why should that be illegal? According to the North Carolina State Bar:
The unauthorized practice of law is illegal because a person who is not trained and licensed as an attorney may seriously harm the interests of a member of the public by providing incompetent legal services.
Supporters of these restrictions don’t have kind words for opponents:
[George Leef] would no doubt not allow a member of his family to be operated on by a nurse any more than he would have a will or estate plan prepared by an insurance agent. Yet, he appears to advocate a legal system that would leave the fates of children and families—particularly the poor—to the whims of an unregulated, incompetent or even unscrupulous marketplace.
The unscrupulous marketplace? Harsh words from those who support the legal restrictions. Perhaps I’m just jaded, but I fail to see how a group of lawyers, who have a financial interest to keep out the competition have more scruples than anybody else.
How competition is defined is often pretty loose. Firms like Legalzoom, which provides legal forms anyone can fill out, have been targeted by legal associations. What’s their crime? They don’t provide erroneous advice. Nobody is claiming that. (Well, maybe somebody is making that claim, but when I typed in “Legalzoom gave me bad advice” into Google, I couldn’t find much of note.) No, their crime is offering the public legal advice without being lawyers. Legalzoom is providing better products at cheaper prices. This is the type of wonderful innovation that, throughout American history, has improved lives and increased our standard of living.
The truth is the legal profession isn’t looking out for its consumers’ best interest in this case – they’re looking to restrict competition. I wish it were only lawyers restricting freedom to work a job. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Have you heard of Uber yet? If not, you probably will soon. Uber is a car service where customers use smartphone apps to request their rides. The driver picks them up, much like a normal taxi would, and takes the driver to their destination. The idea is so simple that it seems crazy that there could be government objections to such a service. But there are.
Much like any innovation, those who had the traditional, less efficient product or service are losing business. In this case, it’s the taxicab industry. Normally, when a new product harms an old industry, the old industry simply diminishes in size and scope or sometimes completely disappears. (Anybody see typewriters recently?) But sometimes the existing industry will claim the new and emerging firms shouldn’t be allowed to operate in order to protect the public interest. Here’s George Hobica of the Huffington Post:
But when you fire it up and summon a driver, you’re putting your life in their hands. Is that driver insured properly? Does he have liability insurance? Is it current or did it expire last week? Who’s checking? What’s the company’s liability if you’re injured in a crash? What are the local laws? What protections are there in your market?
Some of these are good questions, but many don’t pass a logical consistency check. Consider the same paragraph, rewritten by me to describe a farmers market:
But when you buy fruit from a local farmer’s market, you’re putting your life in their hands. Is that farmer properly insured? Does he have liability insurance? Is it current or did it expire last week? Who’s checking? What’s the company’s liability if you get food poisoning? What are the local laws? What protections are there in your market?
There are some basic food safety laws, just like there are some basic driver safety laws. Shouldn’t you have the choice whether to buy your food from the farmer down the street or a Wal-Mart? Do you want the government to tell you from whom you can and cannot buy food? Yet the government is trying to tell you there are only certain people from whom you can pay for a car ride.
These are just two examples of organizations preventing people from earning a living, but somebody could write a book about ways that special interest groups and governments restrict this freedom. In fact, somebody already has. “The Right to Earn a Living,” by Timothy Sandefur, covers many historical and current cases where governments have infringed upon liberty with job restrictions. He writes “Today, individuals are presumed to be competent to vote on important matters of public policy and are even courted by politicians who seek to provide the public with virtually any policy that voters demand. Yet the opposite attitude prevails in economic matters, where political leaders view people as incapable of making responsible decision on their own.”
Those who think people can’t make their own decisions on whom to hire for services, and relatedly, for how to earn a living, cost Americans significant amounts of money and freedom. Even worse, these restrictions are put in place to enrich the privileged classes, like those who can afford a particular certification or those with the means to cozy up to politicians. The goal of the restrictions is to restrict average Americans from living the American dream so those with the certification can make more money. The fictional world of “Suits” is based on a true premise that’s really sad. A third party, one who doesn’t have your best interest in mind, wants to restrict your rights.
The author is a professor of economics at Susquehanna University. He blogs at MatthewRousu.com.