Judge Francis M. Finch, formerly associate justice of the New York Court of Appeals, in an address as president of the New York State Bar Association, declared that the legal profession was overcrowded, and that “pressed by the necessities of a livelihood, there is a danger that men may be tempted to gain money by questionable means and may bring scandal and disgrace upon the profession.” Of course, the year was 1901 rather than 2012.
Well, everything is relative. But the problems our profession is facing are significant and need to be addressed head-on and aggressively. With new law schools continuing to open, the numbers of admitted lawyers increasing, debt burdens burgeoning and employment prospects stagnating, hard decisions need to be made and creative solutions tried. Fortunately, there are a number of initiatives being implemented nationally and countless ones yet to be considered.
Just the Facts
In 1950, there was one lawyer for every 709 Americans. Today, there is a lawyer for every 257. Lawyer salaries have increased as well. From 1940 to 1960, lawyers lost ground as their inflation-adjusted income eroded. In more recent years, the situation has reversed. According to Bloomberg News, if revenues at the top 50 grossing firms had increased at the rate of inflation between 1985 and 2010, their total revenue in 2010 would have been $6.9 billion. Instead, it was $48.4 billion.
A recently released study showed that in 2009, nationwide, nearly twice as many lawyers passed the bar exam (53,508) as there were openings for them (26,239).
There are approximately 200 ABA-approved law schools in the United States, an increase of 9 percent in the last decade. But that number keeps growing. In May The National Law Journal announced that Indiana Tech planned to break ground on a $15 million building that will house the law school projected to open in 2013.
Add to the mix the “revised” projections of law student debt recently published by Law School Transparency: For the class of 2015, the figure is $210,796; for the class of 2016, that number jumps to $216,406.
Regardless of whether those numbers are accurate, the overall picture is troubling. Universities seem disinclined to resist the impulse to open new, tuition- and prestige-enhancing law schools. The ABA is not likely to deny qualifying schools accreditation. And, despite a 15 percent drop in law school applications nationwide, law schools will almost certainly find enough students to fill their open slots as demand for a legal education remains strong.
On the Bright Side
As you know, in Minnesota MSBA has implemented Committee 36 to help new graduates. So, what are some other possible solutions? In May George Washington University Law School announced that it would reduce incoming enrollment from last year’s 474 to below 450 going forward. The University of California Hastings College of Law has announced plans to cut enrollment by 20 percent over three years. Three other schools have similarly reduced their incoming classes in 2011. The reduction in students clearly has a fiscal impact. Hastings will lose $2.1 million in tuition revenue. To offset the loss, Hastings has eliminated the equivalent of 23 full-time, nonfaculty positions, plans to boost its fundraising efforts, and intends to focus on distance learning and non J.D. programs.
Other schools and bar associations have thought outside the box as well. The declining number of lawyers in rural areas as senior lawyers retire is well-known. The Iowa State Bar Association has launched an effort, with two law schools, to match law students with solo practitioners or small firms in small Iowa towns for summer clerkships, hoping that students will return to the area after graduation.
Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego has joined four other law schools and launched a solo practice incubator that provides affordable office space and mentoring from law faculty and alums to graduates looking to start their own practices. The school also has a solo practice concentration within its curriculum.
Most notable is that despite the large number of lawyers, the unmet legal needs of the poor remain breathtaking. With funding for Civil Legal Services declining each year, a problem compounded by a nearly equal increase in the desperate need for help, it is time for each law firm and each lawyer in the state to commit to pro bono work. The State of New York recently announced that new lawyers will be required to perform 50 hours of unpaid work before being licensed to practice. With 10,000 new lawyers admitted each year, that amounts to a half million hours of badly needed legal services. In New York, requests for legal assistance from the Legal Aid Society have jumped from 16 percent to 54 percent for domestic violence, healthcare, and unemployment/work-related issues. For help with foreclosures, requests have increased 800 percent.
It’s time to get serious. Although I’ve threatened to do a coup and stay president for life, I leave you all in the very capable hands of Bob Enger, who knows these issues and cares deeply about working toward solutions.
Thank you all for giving me the great honor of serving as your president this last year. To Tim and Nancy, Joni, Bryan, Elyse, Steve, Jud, Jennifer, Gerry, Denise, Tim G, Tram, and all the others, my humblest and most heartfelt appreciation. And to Brian, Randy, Chris, and Greg, without your support, this would not have been possible. Finally, to my wife Sarah and to Allison and Monica who gave me up for 2.5 years, I cannot possibly tell you how much you mean to me.