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November 28, 2006

Certification Push Won't Cure Profession's Ills

Connecticut Law Tribune - October 23, 2006

My head nearly exploded when I read this newspaper's Aug. 28 "Advice of Counsel" column.

Why? The first two paragraphs of this column tells us, "Three years of law school no longer cuts the mustard." The public, it maintains, "needs to evaluate the lawyer they are planning to hire and trust. If a potential client engages a lawyer with little or no experience in the field of a client's issue, there is a possible difference in the level of service that will be provided and possibly the chances of success," it says. "This can lead to client disappointment and less trust in the profession as a whole."

We in essence have a column that says three years of law school is not an adequate education and everyone should already know this. It further claims, by extension, fresh graduates who choose to go solo or start small firms are not equipped to represent their clients and the public can be harmed. This is the only conclusion one can draw from this statement because the alternative for a graduate with a half-baked education is to be hired by a private law firm or government agency. Hermetically sealed in the law firm or governmental womb, the unsuspecting public is protected from these newly minted incompetents by the oversight of more experienced attorneys and the profession's image remains unsullied.

The Law Tribune's Advisory Board claims these prefatory comments were made to justify its conclusion that the remedy for this huge educational failing is specialization certification. In addition, it is our job as practicing lawyers to support specialization certification because it enables the certified lawyer to advertise their expertise to the public, which will in turn protect these unsuspecting lumps from dangerously inexperienced lawyers.

No, oh sage advice-givers, your premise is flawed and your antidote is snake oil. You can't suggest a cure if you've misdiagnosed the cause of the illness. The remedy is not to create certifications. The remedy is to find out why "three years of law school no longer cuts the mustard" and then correct it. Why are the law schools no longer doing their job? Or are they being prevented from doing their job by anachronistic ABA criteria and academic thinking? Should we establish a Bush-type initiative called "No Law Student Left Behind?"

Maybe certification programs should be part of the law school curriculum so law students and new solos have a fighting chance in this certification-crazed world. Create an educational experience where potential new solos who don't want to work for "the firm" or government don't suffer a premature professional death.

By the way, I've never stated that law schools fail their students with black letter law knowledge. I've consistently maintained they have failed the students by not mandating skills and business training and have failed to support their students' entrepreneurial ambitions. Certification doesn't cure that sad state of affairs.

Accelerated specialization certification doesn't fix the foundational problems. The suggestion of certification to protect the public from inexperienced lawyers and protect the profession's image is analogous to putting a band-aid on a broken bone.

If the medical community is to be lauded as the brass ring to be reached for by the legal community, the column's "benefits of specialization certification" analysis should be taken to the next level. What is happening now in the medical community from the public's perspective? The internist (read general practitioner) is going the way of the dodo bird, functioning simply as a traffic manager funneling patients to specialists while they pimp the latest advertised pharmaceuticals as an appetizer. John Q. Public is sick of fragmented healthcare and needing 15 different over-priced specialists.

Lawyers aren't being left behind. But they are being hoodwinked into believing they should give up their right to practice one or 20 areas of law by being wedged into a specialty in order to compete. Once certification takes hold, especially in the most basic legal areas, the new graduate who wishes to go solo won't have a fighting chance to hang a shingle. Maybe that's what this push for certification is really about.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is a solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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