Cost disease, the practice of law and access to justice

(First published on slaw.ca)

How is it that we are such a wealthy society yet services that were once available are no longer available (at least at affordable prices)? Many people, but certainly not all, had help in their homes and farms, even full-time help. Doctors used to make house calls. When I was a child, the milkman[1] made deliveries each day. There used to be people who actually answered telephones in businesses.

What we call the “access to justice” problem seems to be similar in nature. We know that the number of self-represented litigants has dramatically increased over the last four decades. Ordinary people can’t afford lawyers. Even lawyers can’t afford lawyers. Yet, it seems that there was a time that people had a family lawyer just like they had a family doctor.

Some of this is pastoral myth. The idea that doctors were once available to all isn’t true as Tommy Douglas addressed in Saskatchewan in the 1950s. The poor didn’t have servants even though domestic help seems to have been more common than it is now. The image of the small town lawyer serving the whole town fails to recognize that there were income differences that must have affected who could afford to pay for a lawyer.

And while the price of legal services is a significant issue, it isn’t the only issue in the “access to justice” problem. There is also much to the idea that our legal system has become more and unnecessarily complex with attendant costs. A system of justice that is too expensive for most to access is a denial of access to justice even if the perfect justice can be obtained by those who can afford it.

While the problem of access to justice has more than one cause (and so must be addressed in more than one way), the cost of lawyers seems increasingly to be part of the problem. But why is that?

Cost Disease

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast on economics[2]. There was an interview with Larry Summers[3] who is a highly regarded economist[4]. Stephen Dubner, the interviewer, asked Summers about the cost of government and why it is that the cost of government doesn’t shrink. As Dubner asked:

You talk about us having conquered inflation, but lately you’ve been writing about the reasons why federal government can’t shrink. One of those reasons that I found really interesting — you talked about how changes in structural pricing that disproportionately affect government are huge. You talk about the Consumer Price Index from 1983 versus today and the things that have gotten relatively cheaper and the things that have gotten relatively much more expensive. Can you talk about that for a moment? I assume where that leads to is a conversation about what you economists call cost disease, yes?

Summers responded saying:

This is the phenomenon that was first noticed by the late Princeton economist William Baumol, that’s sometimes referred to Baumol’s Disease or cost disease. It refers to the fact that if workers become much more productive doing some things — and their wage has to be the same in all sectors, then there’s going to be a tendency for the price of the areas in which labor is not becoming productive to rise. That’s why it costs more to go to the theater relative to other things that it did when I was a child. That’s why tuition in colleges has risen. That’s why the cost of mental-health counseling has risen. All kinds of activities where it takes inherently a person one hour to provide a given service and where productivity growth is defeating the point. Productivity growth in education, after all, is a higher ratio of students to teachers — which is exactly the opposite of what we all want for our kids. Those structural changes are going to define our economy.

The cost disease thesis says that relatively unproductive sectors become more costly with productivity increases in other sectors because incomes increase in both productive and unproductive sectors as a result of increased productivity.

A core idea of cost disease is that there is labour mobility over time. In the long run, a sector will not be able to continue to pay people lower incomes if work is available to them elsewhere for higher incomes. Just because one sector is less productive than another sector doesn’t mean the less productive sector will be able to get away with paying its workers lower incomes. The cost disease thesis also reflects the economic view that incomes over time generally rise as productivity generally rises. Of course, there are questions about some of the underpinning of the cost disease thesis.[5]

But even if one does not accept the idea that productivity increases positively affect incomes generally[6], it must be true that sectors that do not become more productive will become relatively more costly unless these relatively unproductive sectors decrease incomes in their sectors.

Cost disease and the practice of law

I was struck by the application of the idea of cost disease to the practice of law. The last four decades have seen amazing productivity increases in other sectors of the economy. Computing capacity and networks have fundamentally changed the productivity of significant sectors of the economy. Before that, mechanization, electrification and industrialization radically changed the productivity of other sectors of the economy.

On the other hand, it also seems pretty clear that lawyer productivity has little changed over the long term. While there have been some productivity changes arising from modern technology, most of that has simply been to reduce overhead as lawyers do their own document processing.

This is particularly true in litigation. The approach to analyzing documentary evidence, interviewing clients and witnesses, discovering adverse parties and trying cases for ordinary people is highly lawyer-intensive without there having been material changes in productivity over the decades[7]. This may be less true in some of the solicitor’s practices where technology has made document production more efficient and where process efficiencies can be adopted in routine aspects of legal work where there is sufficient volume.

Of course, economic theories do not always hold in practice. There can be other factors at work. Market efficiency assumptions may not hold. But actual labour market information seems to show that lawyer incomes have followed incomes generally. A few years ago, I looked at census information over the last forty years or so and found that lawyer incomes generally tracked family incomes over that period. I also understand that research has indicated that lawyer, engineer and doctor incomes track a similar path[8].

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that lawyer incomes do rise and fall with incomes generally for whatever reason. That means that if other sectors have become more productive then the cost of what is produced in those sectors will have declined. Costs in sectors like law where productivity has not improved, or improved as much, will relatively increase.

I was excited by the new (to me) thought that apparent increases in legal costs and resulting diminution in access to justice could be explained in part by increased productivity in other sectors and the limited productivity increases in law. I went looking for further discussion of cost disease and, particularly, its application to the practice of law.

Not surprisingly, I found that this was not a new thought. For those interested in reading more, Professor Gregory W. Bowman posted two blogs on exactly this point over a decade ago in his Law Career Blog[9]. More recently, Emery Lee[10] published a journal article in the University of Miami Law Review entitled “Law Without Lawyers: Access to Civil Justice and the Cost of Legal Services”[11]

In his article, Lee looked at the cost of legal services for the “Big Guy” and the cost for the “Little Guy” i.e. the ordinary person. Lee said at pp. 514 to 515 that “In relation to the Little Guy, the cost disease is his problem. As discussed above, in general, it is not the levels, or amount, of discovery that keep the Little Guy out of court. Most of the Little Guy’s cases are not going to be discovery-heavy, and reforms designed to reduce discovery levels are unlikely to help the Little Guy.” and “The Little Guy has simply been priced out of the market for legal services. Reducing discovery levels is unlikely to solve this problem.”

So what?

As a profession, we have had difficult discussions about innovating our existing business structures. Some argue that we should simply focus on procedural and substantive simplification of the litigation process, that it is only litigation that is a problem and that solicitors’ practices are just fine. Accepting that simplification in litigation is important, my view has long been that the significant areas where people do not use legal services at all (sometimes called the 85%) must be addressed and that the cost of providing services is a major part of the reason for the lack of service in the 85%. Increases in costs arising from increased productivity in other sectors may be part of the reason that the 85% cannot be effectively served without significant productivity changes. This supports the idea that it is important to bring capital and technology to bear because increasingly expensive professional labour is simply too expensive for the task[12].

What is a significant implication for me is that decreased access to justice in the 15% served by lawyers, and particularly in litigation, may be the result of cost disease and the lack of productivity increases in law. Where access to capital is constrained as is true in the practice of law, labour is overwhelmingly the means of production. Where productivity in other sectors improves, the cost of legal work certainly relatively increases. And if labour costs actually rise generally with increased productivity, the absolute cost of legal work will increase as lawyer incomes rise with productivity in other sectors[13].

If “cost disease” is a material reason for the increasing cost of legal services and diminishing access to legal services, it follows that legal costs will continue to relatively increase unless productivity in the legal sector improves. Even without this analytic framework, it is obvious that new ways of providing legal services are already here and that they are less expensive and more easily accessible. This will only increase.

The implication is significant. If the traditional practice of law becomes relatively more and more expensive over time then fewer legal services will be consumed and the threat from new and less expensive forms of legal service will increase. Legal services regulation will not ultimately hold back this tide, nor should it in my view.

So the question is whether we should continue to restrict the practice of law to traditional practices or should we encourage real innovation in the way that law is practiced so that productivities are achieved.

I used to think that the answer was obviously that increased productivity should be encouraged because of the moral and policy obligation to promote access to justice. While still thinking that is so, I also think that existing legal practices are imperilled by our unwillingness to allow the conditions required for innovation. Cost disease is not just a disease suffered by consumers of legal services. Cost disease is suffered by lawyer and paralegal producers too and the consequences may be more severe if not addressed. Attempting to hold back the tide can work for a while but when the dike fails much can be lost that could have been saved.

Something to think about.

_____________________________

[1] Herb was our milkman and he had a very cool truck. He let me ride with him in his truck on our street when I was a little boy

[2] http://freakonomics.com/

[3] http://freakonomics.com/podcast/larry-summers-economist-everyone-hates-love/

[4] Even if not so much on other topics

[5] It is not so clear that the benefits of productivity increases are generally distributed. Labour market mobility is suspect with income disparities having increased over the last generation. Increases in productivity over the last generation have not resulted in increased real incomes for many people. Some increases in income have been enjoyed in distant economies with local labour markets facing downward pressures.

[6] i.e. that the wealthy disproportionately enjoy the profitability arising from increased profitability

[7] Significant e-discovery advances exist but are mostly irrelevant outside of “big business” disputes and mostly address the significant increase in e-documents in business over the last couple of decades. Litigation for ordinary people has not seen material productivity gains other than legal research, especially CanLii.

[8] Alice Woolley kindly reviewed a draft of this column. She advised that this observation was made in the research underlying Woolley, Alice and Farrow, Trevor C. W., “Addressing Access to Justice Through New Legal Service Providers: Opportunities and Challenges” (2015), 3 Texas A & M Law Review 549

[9] http://law-career.blogspot.ca/2006/07/baumols-cost-disease-and-practice-of.html and http://law-career.blogspot.ca/2006/08/baumols-cost-disease-and-lawyers-part.html

[10] Senior Researcher in the US Federal Judicial Centre

[11] Emery G. Lee III, Law Without Lawyers: Access to Civil Justice and the Cost of Legal Services, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 499 (2015)

[12] If legal services are only relatively more expensive but not absolutely more expensive, it would still follow that consumption of legal services would decline.

[13] Whether because of increased productivity in other sectors or not, lawyer incomes have followed other incomes.

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