Thursday, April 29, 2010 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

While We're Talking About Propping Up Failed Business Models...

I recently helped my colleagues Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka on a short essay rebutting the misguided notion that the government should grant postal subsidies to "old media" enterprises to help them survive. One of the arguments, of course, is that the state should perhaps not be propping up an old way of doing things (i.e., printing news on dead trees and spending physical and environmental resources shipping it around the country), when new and better ways are emerging. In the course of working on that paper, it occurred to me that maybe the time has come to scrap the entire U.S. Postal Service, but the thought was too far removed from the focus of the essay, and I let the idea go.

Recently, however, I've been forced to return to it. Although I am admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania and D.C., I am not admitted in my new home state of California. As I have become more involved in my small mountain community, I have been approached on more than one occasion to help a friend or associate in some way that could conceivably be regarded as the "practice of law." My wife, who is a California lawyer, has also recently opened a solo practice in town, and it would be nice if I could assist her from time to time, as the need arises. The only thing to do, it seemed to me, was to take the California Bar exam and become a member here as well.

Putting aside what an asinine process this is (i.e., requiring a 50-year old man who has been a lawyer for twenty years to take a bar exam focused — appropriately — on testing the basic knowledge of recent law school graduates), I was stunned to learn that bar admissions committees are about the last entities on earth to use the U.S. Postal Service in any systematic way.

In order to register with the California Bar, and to have them do a "character evaluation" of me, I had to mail requests to the other jurisdictions in which I am admitted, asking for "certificates in good standing," and then mail those to the California Bar. In the process of doing so, I realized that I have not used the Postal Service for at least the last five years—maybe more. I pay bills on-line, I pay my taxes on-line, I send all my personal correspondence by email now (including greeting cards), and I receive materials from by broker, my lawyer, my accountant … all on-line. I use the Postal Service for literally nothing … until now.

Apparently the bar authorities think it is 1930 and that we have to mail documents back and forth across the country. As it turns out, the California Bar did not like the document they received from the Pennsylvania Bar because it did not have my original date of admission on it. So what did they do? E-mail someone in Pennsylvania to verify my admission date? Make a telephone call? No, they asked me to send yet another request (by mail) to Pennsylvania to have them send a corrected version of the document they had already sent, this time with my admission date on it. I wanted to grab somebody at the California Bar by the lapels and shout, "Hello! There is this thing, now, called the Internet! It's really amazing how fast and easy the exchange of information can be using it." But, alas, I know that the California Bar is not in the least interested in customer service; why should they be? They don't care that it is incredibly wasteful, time-consuming, and costly to use old fashioned snail mail to do on paper what could easily be done in bits for essentially no cost and in seconds. They have a captive "customer" base and we do as we're told, no matter how patently stupid. Indeed, I tried to have this conversation with one of the admissions staff and I got the bureaucratic response of "our rules are very clear." Really, how hard would it be to have a secure system in which the bar authorities in the states and territories could communicate to find out whether disciplinary actions had been taken against a particular member, or to verify the date of original admission?

If the government really wants to create incentives for broadband use, as almost every observer has said it should, quasi-state run organizations, like bar associations, should make use of the Internet to improve the customer experience. Indeed, if the bar authorities around the country would simply realize that it is 2010, an entire generation of would-be lawyers would have an incentive to be connected! Woe, then, to the Post Office and the hundreds of thousands of postal employees … but old models have to die before new ones can truly thrive, and propping them up in the short-term will only make it harder and more costly in the long run when people like the California Bar authorities wake and realize that Lord Blackstone died 230 years ago.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 10:18 PM | Generic Rant , Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism