Tougher standards can improve the legal professions well-deserved reputation.
I recently had the pleasure of giving continuing education lectures to a group of emergency and critical care veterinarians at the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Symposium (IVECCS) in Washington, D.C. In attendance were some truly remarkable veterinarians and experts from all over the world. As an added bonus, I spent time with my middle son, who is completing his fourth-year med school clinical rotation at George Washington University Hospital.
Photo source: Getty ImagesMy lectures covered a broad range of topics from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as ObamaCare) to veterinary malpractice law. During a lively postlecture Q and A session, I learned two interesting things from my audience. First, I was pleased to discover that many terrific young doctors read this column (thanks, guys and gals). Second, I found that the finest in the veterinary profession harbor a great deal of distrust and resentment against the legal profession.
Much of the disdain is justified. American society is clearly too litigious, and it doesn't surprise me that veterinarians gathering in lawyering's epicenter would be eager to give me an earful. But, as with so many things, I have an opinion. Allow me to offer these four ideas that I feel would improve the legal profession and the service it provides:
1. Becoming a lawyer needs to be harder. In the 30 years since I graduated from law school, an odd phenomenon has occurred. While the road to becoming a human health professional has gotten increasingly difficult-for example, hospitals are demanding that more nurses obtain bachelor's degrees, and the competition to enter physician assistant programs is becoming fiercer each year-more law schools are opening their doors than ever before. While the handful of new veterinary schools cause their share of professional outcry, they pale in comparison to the number of new law schools being planned.
I'm at a loss to explain the disconnect. It defies common sense to think that while the number of well-paying legal jobs is declining or rising only slowly (depending on the region), new law schools are opening all the time. Educators in the field of jurisprudence seem to have forgotten that supply and demand isn't a philosophical debate point-it's an economic law.
2. Law office experience should be a requirement for admission to law school. I personally know a dozen attorneys who wish they'd done something else or have left the profession. I don't think any of them spent five minutes in a law office prior to enrolling in law school.
Working in a law office as an intern, clerking in the mailroom or even vacuuming the conference room can save an aspiring law student from a misspent education. She can discover the cutthroat competition for high-quality clients. She can see that the day-to-day legal work is often dull-as is doing colonoscopies for 10 straight hours or being asked every 15 minutes, “Do you really think my dog is too fat?”
Law office experience before law school admission would help weed out applicants who might need the opportunity to discover that the volume of compelling work doesn't personally justify the time and money commitment.
3. More states need to require board certification. Many attorneys and bar associations resist the concept of board examinations and certification in legal specialties. I support it. Not only do I believe in the concept of board certification, I would go even further and suggest that Texas law be mimicked elsewhere-lawyers who advertise that they handle specific categories of legal matters should have to declare in their advertising if they aren't board-certified.
Do lawyers want respect in their communities? If so, the bar needs to step up and recognize something the veterinary and medical professions have acknowledged for years-that obtaining an MD or DVM degree does not entitle the bearer to persuade the public that he or she is qualified to perform a lung lobectomy.
If an attorney has special training in taxation, prove it. Get boarded in the field and charge appropriately. Don't prepare complex wills without knowing the right income, gift, estate, trust and generation-skipping transfer tax questions to ask the client. If you don't have that knowledge, reveal it in your advertising so that clients with more sophisticated legal needs know to steer clear of the potential damage that can be caused.
4. Law schools should prioritize applicants with science degrees. The jobs that are disappearing in the law field aren't the technical ones. Intellectual property law is lucrative for its practitioners. Lawyers who practice medical malpractice law need the background in anatomy and physiology to understand testimony by expert medical witnesses.
When college kids considering law school ask me what areas of law are in demand, I tell them that a bachelor's in electrical engineering or chemistry will draw huge attention to their CVs when they apply for a job. It's a highly technical world out there, and a science or technical background brings much more to the table than a bachelor's in Greek literature.
Better lawyers, better results
The legal profession needs to wise up. A reasonable population of capable lawyers trained to specialize in the technical areas that dominate the 21st-century economy will be employable and admired by society.
These will be the lawyers who counsel General Motors to fix broken ignition switches before victims' families hammer them with huge negligence claims. And they'll be the ones who have enough real work to do-enough so that they'll advise pet owners to settle malpractice claims against their veterinarians for a reasonable figure rather than encouraging litigation in order to net one-third of an absurd lawsuit claim amount.
Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD, is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law, which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.