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The decline in government service and pro bono work performed by young lawyers today is not the result of poor ethics or of greed, according to American Bar Association President Robert E. Hirshon, but rather of crushing law school debt and sky-high billable-hours goals imposed by employers. Addressing the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s House of Delegates at its semi-annual meeting Friday in Hershey, Pa., Hirshon said that a generation ago, 14 percent to 15 percent of law school graduates went into government service. Today, he said, that figure stands at 3.3 percent. Hirshon said he entered law school in the 1960s, “during a time of idealism” when young adults studied law with the goal of making a difference. He said he initially thought the drop in government service was due to a generation of lawyers with a different work ethic, who “went to law school just to make money.” But after speaking with many new graduates, Hirshon said, he discovered that many of them had the same goals that he did. However, they told him their law school debt left them with no choice other than to accept a high-paying law firm job. “When I graduated law school [in 1973], I had $4,000 in debt,” Hirshon said. “The average law school student today graduates with $90,000 in debt.” So although they didn’t want to, new lawyers frequently passed up opportunities to work for the local district attorney’s office or with the public defender, Hirshon said. He said one way to allow new lawyers to take those jobs would be a loan-forgiveness program for new law school graduates with 10-year Stafford Loans, similar to that afforded medical school graduates. New lawyers would be awarded debt forgiveness if they agreed to work for the government or for non-government organizations, he said. Hirshon’s commission has been working on the issue for about six months, he said. He said he plans to lobby Congress in its next session to ask lawmakers to consider adopting such a program. Hirshon said another crisis facing the profession is a marked decrease in the amount of pro bono work performed by law firms. He said he believes the root cause of the problem is the “absolute slavery” created by the billable-hours system. Most lawyers forget that the billable-hours concept is a relatively recent creation, Hirshon said. He said it was started in the late 1960s after the Federal Trade Commission determined that fee schedules published by state and local bar associations constituted a restraint of trade. The bar associations entered a consent agreement with the FTC to no longer publish the schedules, he said, and that gave rise to the billable-hours system. But Hirshon said the result of that system is that today, billables have become the “tail that wags the dog.” Some law school graduates in New York City are earning $200,000 annually, while being told to bill 2,500 to 2,600 hours, he said. Hirshon appointed a commission to study billable hours about six months ago. Since then, he said, the commission has heard testimony from clients, insurance companies, consumers and attorneys. It is compiling a white paper that should be ready for the August meeting of the House of Delegates, Hirshon said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The problem is that billables are used for several purposes, only one of which is billing,” he told The Legal Intelligencer. “Another purpose is to evaluate lawyers. We believe that relying exclusively on billable hours to evaluate can become counterproductive. It doesn’t provide information on the quality of work, on mentoring or on public service,” he said. Hirshon said the system has had a particularly negative effect on lawyers new to the profession. “What we are finding is that younger attorneys are working about four years under these conditions and then leaving,” Hirshon told the House of Delegates, “not just leaving the firm, but leaving the profession.” He said lawyers who leave find themselves disillusioned about what they thought the practice of law would be like. Often, they function as a tiny part of a case in which they never see the final outcome or feel connected to the client, he said “Maybe there is a better way,” Hirshon told the delegates. He said some alternatives to the billable-hours system are “value billing,” in which firms bill fees on the basis of uniform standards for how long it should take to complete a task, fixed fees, contingencies or reverse contingencies.

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