Editor's note from The Legal Intelligencer: This is the first of a two-part series looking at the way lawyers affected by the recession are coping.
It's a bleak time for many attorneys, as business in some practice areas remains sluggish and firms continue to cut staff. For most attorneys, it was never supposed to be like this. With its prestige and relatively high salaries, the legal profession was supposed to spare attorneys the indignities inflicted upon other industries during down economic times.
But now that it has happened, what options do out-of-work lawyers have? The good news is that for those who feel lost professionally, like they're being forced to start from scratch, there are programs out there for lawyers to turn to for help.
For instance, the Philadelphia Bar Association is offering aid in the form of an initiative called "Lawyers in Transition" to help attorneys find work and get back on their feet. The Pennsylvania Bar Association is working on helping out-of-work attorneys retain their health benefits and some law schools are even getting involved by assisting alumni in networking and job searching.
So while times are tough for many in the legal profession, nobody has to go it alone.
COLLEAGUES REACH OUT
Philadelphia Bar Association Executive Director Ken Shear said the association is experiencing a "sea change" in its focus.
"We're turning inward a lot more than we have, trying to constantly deal with what we can do for lawyers who are unemployed, underemployed and on the bubble," he said.
The bar has set up a Lawyers in Transition Web site (www.phillylawyersintransition.org) that includes a calendar of upcoming events aimed at helping lawyers find work and links to other relevant Web sites and blogs such as Philly Solo Law and The PR Lawyer.
But it doesn't end at the Web site, Shear said.
The bar association has issued "directives" to all of its different sections asking them to come up with programming geared specifically at helping lawyers in need.
Daniel J. Siegel, who co-chairs the Philadelphia Bar Association's law practice management division with Mary F. Platt, said all of the group's efforts as of late have been "focusing on the umbrella that the bar created of Lawyers in Transition."
Siegel said the group, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Bar Institute, hosted a CLE program in May titled "Lawyers in Transition" and was "extremely pleased" with the result.
Much of the early part of the discussion, titled "Suddenly Solo," focused on the little things attorneys might not think of when hanging a shingle. Panelists talked about ethical responsibilities, client notification, malpractice insurance, technology issues, keeping up with professional memberships, notifying the state disciplinary board, determining how to charge and collect fees, how to get bank loans and a number of other practical areas that can sneak up on a lawyer forging out on his own for the first time.
Other topics included the use of social networking and taking advantage of the bar association's Lawyer Referral Service, which connects paying clients with lawyers who applied to be a part of the service.
According to Siegel, the bar is also trying to encourage its practice area committees to run programs with more in-depth focuses on different areas of law "so that people in transition who end up taking cases in areas they're really not familiar with can at least get a basic competency."
Siegel also said the Managing Partner Development Institute, of which he is a founding partner, will be running a series of seminars in the fall dealing with "being a managing partner in difficult times," which cover issues such as client development and retention, leadership competencies needed during troubled times and improving work flow, among others.
Clifford E. Haines, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, said the organization is currently trying to put together a benefits package for lawyers in transition.
"[We're asking ourselves] 'Can we incorporate them into our health care program if they've lost their health care benefits, even if they're not currently members?'" he said.
The organization is also trying to educate lawyers about its job bank and is hoping to establish a bridge loan program, Haines said.
"If a lawyer can demonstrate that because of the economic downturn they've lost a significant amount of income or maybe even lost their practice, can we give them an interest-free loan for a period of time until the economy turns around?" Haines said, describing how the proposed loan would work.
HELPING ATTORNEYS HELP THEMSELVES
According to Shear, the Philadelphia Bar Association is working with the PBI to host more CLEs aimed at lawyers in transition.
But Shear said the association understands that taking part in all of this can become costly, especially for attorneys who are currently out of work.
So, for the Lawyers in Transition CLE program, Shear said the association asked that the PBI waive the entrance fee for anyone who said they wanted to attend but could not afford it.
"We had about 200 people there -- of that, less than 10 paid," he said. "That was major."
Siegel said he was surprised at the way the audience who attended the program reflected the wide reach of the recession.
"We expected a younger crowd than the ones who attended," he said. "The perception may be that it was all young lawyers who were out of work, but this program goes way beyond just young lawyers and is far broader."
Shear said the Philadelphia Bar Association is also willing to assist, on a "case-by-base" basis, attorneys interested in using the Lawyer Referral Service.
Shear said the service offers many useful resources for struggling attorneys but that becoming eligible to use it presents a "little bit of a Catch-22" because it requires, among other things, that you first become a member of your local bar association.
For attorneys who want to use the service but who can't afford to first join the Philadelphia Bar Association, Shear said his organization would be "willing to pay special attention to their financial needs" with regard to the membership fee.
"I can't cure everything, but if individuals write me directly or call me, we'll be deferential to their needs," he said.
BEYOND THE BAR
"One of the challenges that I think all law schools face is how to be of great assistance to their alumni while at the same time recognizing that their student population is always in need of significant career support," said Elaine T. Petrossian, assistant dean of the Villanova School of Law.
Petrossian said Villanova's law school has developed a close partnership between the school's career office and the alumni relations office to offer career-focused workshops for both alumni and students, as well as seminars with legal career coaches and counselors.
"And we've gotten very positive feedback from those who have participated," she said.
Petrossian said the school is continuing its long-running practice of allowing alumni access to its job bank and, since the beginning of the year, the alumni directory has included a "career contact component" that allows alumni to network.
"What we realized for a variety of reasons, that were not entirely market-driven but I think amplified because of the market, was that we were seeing a real spike in alumni requests for career support and we wanted to satisfy that while recognizing we have limited resources," she said.
But Petrossian said the importance of professional organizations such as bar associations in times like these cannot be overstated.
Law schools can only do so much for struggling alumni when their first duty is to the students, she said.
The current market climate presents a "fantastic opportunity for professional associations to be relevant to their members," she said.
Haines said the legal community is still trying to figure out how to weather the current economic storm.
"We've never seen the kind and depth of a downturn that we're seeing and the extent to which the legal community has been affected by economy," he said. "There's always been a fluctuation, but this [downturn] is so broad-based and so deep that things are happening in big law firms and small law firms that nobody has seen before."
But Haines said it's because of this uncertainty that professional organizations have a duty to "step up to the plate and help those who need it."
Petrossian commended the efforts of both the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania bar associations but said more organizations need to get involved.
"If we're going to be a collegial profession, we have to realize that these business realities have human costs," she said. "If we're not going to assist each other as a peer-reviewed profession, who's going to do it?"
The second article in the series will focus on career alternatives for out-of-work lawyers.