Too many lawyers

my Trade Tripper column in this 17-18 September 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

“The first thing we do, is to kill all the lawyers.”

Popular in cocktail parties and reliably worth a chuckle or two, and almost always intended at the lawyers’ expense, the phrase seemingly connotes weariness of the legal profession’s annoyingly unwelcome omnipresence in people’s lives.

In truth, the line is actually an unintended compliment to lawyers.

Uttered by the murderous villain Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, the setting involved a group of no-gooders out to foment chaos in England and seize power. And the best way to achieve that, they conclude, to ensure that anarchy happens, is, you guessed it: “to kill all the lawyers.”

Which leads me to another so-called “fact”: the Philippines has too many lawyers. A complaint of businessmen constrained by regulations, policy makers bothered by constitutional parameters, and academics outraged that their discipline is perceived as a steppingstone to law.

The lament is usually accompanied by the wish for more scientists, doctors, engineers -- anything involving the “hard sciences.”

Just not more lawyers.

Of course, humanities and arts feel the same: we need more philosophers and artists. Business schools meanwhile trumpet the need for more managers or (even better) entrepreneurial-minded youth.

But do we really have too many lawyers?

One way of addressing that query is too see how people generally feel about legal costs or the variety of legal counsels they can choose from.

Because if there are indeed too many lawyers, then the law of supply and demand should take care of that, by dragging the fees down. An eventuality, I believe, most are not inclined to admit is happening.

The fact is, we currently have on roster around 40,000 living lawyers. And people have to understand that most of those will not be engaged in traditional law practice.

Many will work in corporations, either as counsel or as part of management. Still many more will be engaged in private business, politics, or the academe.

The actual number of lawyers that people can choose from to handle their litigation or legal requirements is therefore understandably far lesser than what most people think.

Furthermore, the recent development of top corporate positions being increasingly offered to those with law degrees further speaks of the demand for lawyers and against the notion of the latter’s oversupply.

Ah... but surely lawyers are disproportionately too many compared to the other disciplines, particularly within the context of the overall Filipino population?

Again, not true.

Assuming a 100-million Filipino population, that would make a lawyer density of .4 lawyers for every 1,000 Filipinos (or 1 lawyer serving 2,500 Filipinos). And again remember, not all registered lawyers are engaged in traditional law firm work, so the proportion would be far smaller in reality.

Compare that with the United States, which has 1.3 million lawyers for a population of around 300 million. That makes it 4 lawyers for every 1,000 Americans or 1 lawyer for every 250 US citizens.

But don’t we need more scientists or doctors? Sure we do.

But consider: the number of practicing doctors is already nearly twice that of registered lawyers. Reportedly, in 2014, there are around 130,000 registered doctors, with perhaps 75,000 practicing. That makes it 1 doctor for every 1,333 citizens. Although, apparently, the medical profession thinks the optimum doctor-population ratio should be 1:100, which seems to mean that they’re aiming for almost 1 million more doctors!

Perhaps such is possible.

In 2015, there were 2,491 new doctors (a board passing rate of 85%). The year before, 2,218 (81% passing rate).

In 2016, we also had 2,245 new civil engineers (a board exam passing rate of 38%), 2,967 new accountants (43%), and 6,183 new nurses (44%).

Every year, the legal profession just has a little over a thousand new lawyers, with Bar exam passing rates meandering at 18-22% (the most recently released result, 2015, had a higher than normal rate of 26%).

Even looking at student numbers belie the myth of too many lawyers: for example, the 2013 University of the Philippines Statistics show that only 1.1% of its student population are law students, with science and engineering and social sciences accounting for 64%, arts and letters, 15.1%, and management 11.5%.

Now perhaps lawyers are disproportionately represented in high profile or influential positions vis-a-vis other professions or academic disciplines. But one can’t blame lawyers for that.

But it does lead to questions of why.

The Philippines gives too much prestige to lawyers? If true, why? The Philippines is too litigious? If so, why? Why do scientists, engineers, philosophers, etc. not exert a bigger influence in the country?

This article is emphatically not saying that the legal profession is better than others. The only point here is that to say we have too many lawyers is untrue.

In any event, if Filipinos really want to get rid of lawyers or make them irrelevant, then they should just stop lying, stealing, cheating, or hurting one another.