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“The old model of law is no longer credible with young lawyers,” said David B. Wilkins, a Harvard Law School professor at a conference on the legal profession held at the Court of Appeals in Albany, N.Y., last week. “The business model that the large law firms have is the same as that of the 19th century sweatshop capitalist,” Professor Wilkins said to a crowd visibly uncomfortable with his unvarnished message. The two-day conference, “A Convocation on the Face of the Profession,” brought law schools, law firms and the judiciary together to discuss the disillusionment of young lawyers in the legal profession. Although a solution would not be found in two days, speakers acknowledged, it was important to start a dialogue. The Court of Appeals Hall, conspicuously devoid of young lawyers except for a handful of Court of Appeals judicial clerks, was full of senior law firm lawyers and law school administrators, with about 75 people in attendance. In her introduction of Professor Wilkins, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, did not mince words. “The profession today faces enormous challenges …. The hardest hit of all are today’s young lawyers,” she said, pointing to the rampant disenchantment with the profession. Wilkins, a 1980 graduate of Harvard Law School, has been teaching ethics and professionalism at his alma mater since 1986. In a keynote speech that lasted more than an hour, the 44-year-old professor, who directs a program on the legal profession at Harvard, implored the bar to find a new model for the legal profession that is respected by the public as well as young lawyers. Both the public and many new lawyers see the law as “simply a tool for fighting out economic and political battles for the advantaged,” said Wilkins, who had worked for four years at Nussbaum Owen & Webster in Washington, D.C., before he joined the Harvard faculty. The large law firm business model is not only destructive to young lawyers, but in the end is harmful to legal institutions as well, he said. In fact, squeezing as much as possible out of lawyers in the beginning of their careers without offering most of them any long-term prospects is not the way successful businesses are run, said Wilkins, pointing to the high-technology companies. Unlike the law firms, employees of technology companies and other successful businesses feel themselves invested in the company, he said. For example, the Internet industry offers its young employees a stake in the enterprise, an opportunity to develop their careers meaningfully, a feeling that they are working on something that makes a difference in the world and innumerable perks, he explained. But instead of learning from the success of the technology industry, law firms have “cranked up their salaries to a level no rational person believes is sustainable.” This sells these young people short, assuming that all they care about is money, he said. “The bribery strategy is not going to be effective.” To change this model, lawyers must rethink the traditional ideals that the legal profession is built on, Wilkins said. For starters, to be an autonomous profession, he said, lawyers need to have independence not just from the state but also from their clients. Lawyers who are truly independent will represent both the interests of their clients and those of the public, he said further. Yet members of the bar who do not spend their time in courtrooms often forget their role as public advocates, he pointed out. The profession must reassess “how lawyers are going to think about their public responsibility in a world of transactional law,” he added. Law firms are not alone to blame for the current state of the legal profession, according to Wilkins. Law schools are also failing new lawyers both pedagogically and ethically by not teaching them how to think like lawyers. “Law schools do not teach students how to be lawyers or about the profession. They mostly teach them how to be judges, actually mostly how to be [U.S.] Supreme Court judges,” he pointed out. “And as we know, very few people ever become Supreme Court judges.” Wilkins said further that if the profession really wants to change, it must first be studied and understood, yet in a legal world that is built on secrecy, this is very difficult to do. “We can’t study the profession unless the profession allows itself to be studied,” he said. At the end of the address, Wilkins called upon New York, as the “legal center of the world,” to take the lead and create a business model here first. “It’s not going to be easy. This needs to be a dialogue open to all if we intend to come up with solutions workable to all,” he concluded.

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