A Macro-Legal-Economics Class We All Should Take

January 27, 2022

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

So yeah, I made up a new word here, but there is a method to the madness. If you ever took a class in economics, you may remember that microeconomics focuses on individual businesses and distinct areas of the market, while macroeconomics looks at the broader dynamics that drive overall markets and larger economies.

As a legal profession, we tend to be very good at micro-economics, with a solid understanding of our own practice area or niche in the legal market. But when it comes to the larger legal market and access to legal services more broadly, not so much. There is no point in law school or in our standard CLE where most of us are ever exposed to or learn about the macro level issues that drive access to justice for the public we serve.

You may be thinking, who cares? Well, we all do, because with the privilege of our law license comes the responsibility to know about and understand these larger issues so we can fulfill our role as trustees of the legal system. And we are nowhere near where we need to be for the justice system to be fair and accessible for all.

Micro and Macroeconomics in the law

Most lawyers, judges, and legal professionals are focused on their own specialty practice areas or responsibilities within the court system and don’t think much about the overall market for legal services for everyday people and businesses.

Successful personal injury attorneys know their area of the legal market like nobody’s business, managing partners of thriving large law firms are experts in the corporate market for legal services, and the best legal aid lawyers are experts in their areas of law and practice. And so on.

But there are much larger dynamics that drive every area of the legal market as well, and that is where macroeconomics comes into the picture. Some of those are the same macroeconomic trends that drive the overall economy, like inflation, interest rates, and international tensions to name just a few that are front and center right now. Others are more unique to the law, like the rising cost of law school and associated student debt.

The Macro-Legal-Economics Concept

So why did I need to make up a new word? For most lawyers, firms, and judges, the trends that are influencing their particular areas of the legal market are distinct from the larger trends that are negatively interfering with access for everyday Americans. Most lawyers, legal professionals, and judges never see those larger issues in their day-to-day work.

My proposed new term is an attempt at a label to describe these broader issues that go beyond any one area of the law or practice. I’m not going to try to teach the new class I am suggesting right here, but here are some of the key “macro-legal-economics” issues that have a huge impact on access to justice and are incumbent on all of us to address:

  • In what percentage of non-criminal court cases is one or more party unrepresented? How has that percentage changed over time, and what is driving the trend?
  • How is legal aid funded? Is there enough to go around? Can pro bono services fill the gap?
  • Can the average American find quality, affordable legal services when they need them? Where would they go to look? And why isn’t the legal market fixing this problem on its own?
  • Why is our profession so different from our fellow professions in how we regulate the business of law and the delivery of legal services?
  • How are the courts funded, and how does that impact access to the system?

Do We Really Need Another Required Class in Law School or Mandatory CLE Responsibility?

I am generally skeptical of more requirements for law school education or adding to the mandatory CLE for lawyers and judges.

As you may know from my 2022 Resolution for the Profession, I’m no fan of the bar exam or the impact it has on legal education, and I also believe the law school accreditation standards should allow schools far more flexibility in the curriculum to better prepare students to actually practice law. That said, there are some core concepts that we all learned or should have learned in law school that should be part of everyone’s education, and this macro-legal-economics class is one of them.

Similarly, most lawyers and judges who are worth their salt are going to do what they need to do to stay on top of their area of law or practice without a requirement to do so. But there are some overarching topics that won’t always be top of mind to learn about and to stay up to speed on without an outside nudge, like wellness, DEI, and professional responsibility. Macro-legal economics fits right in there.

A one credit law school class and a one or two-hour annual CLE requirement should be more than enough to appropriately cover the topic, and there are a lot of existing resources we could draw from to develop the curriculum.

Some law schools already are offering elective classes that cover some of these issues and are geared towards lawyers going into private practice, including Pro Bono and BigLaw: Public Interest Work in Private Practice at the University of Michigan Law School and a similar class at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law here in Chicago among others. While the macro-legal-economics class would cover a wider breadth of topics, these courses that are geared towards broader legal audiences can be a good starting point for thinking about the course content. We can draw on resources from organizations like the National Center on State Courts, the Institute for Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), Access to Justice Commissions, and other organizations like the CBF that are focused on these macro level trends and issues.

We Need to Move Past the “Coalition of the Willing” Model

In my role at the CBF, I have the good fortune to work with countless lawyers, judges, legal professionals, and other partners who embody the traits we want to see throughout our legal community. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of law firms and corporations, and many other dedicated partners make the good work of the CBF possible and are making a huge difference. But they and other like-minded people in our legal community represent only a fraction of our overall profession and bench.

If you are reading this blog, you already know the answers to the macro-level questions I posed above are not good. And as a self-regulated profession with a responsibility for the quality of justice, we all need to know about and understand these issues to develop sustainable solutions to the larger problems. And that starts with making it a regular expectation that we do so from the time we are in law school to our time in practice and on the bench.