Much has been written about the simultaneous shortage of employment opportunities for lawyers and affordable legal services for persons of moderate means. Less has been said about the opportunities that this market situation might provide for addressing both of those problems.
A recent report by the New York City Bar Association Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession, entitled “Developing Legal Careers and Delivering Justice in the 21st Century,” notes “the irony that, at a time of widespread hand-wringing about the supposed ‘oversupply’ of lawyers in our profession, and at a time when law-graduate unemployment is at an all-time high, tens of millions of Americans in all areas of the country have important unmet legal needs.”
The report focuses on middle-class people, but also acknowledges that the poor have limited access to government funded legal services programs because of insufficient funding.
An obvious question is why market forces of supply and demand have not resulted in measures to address both shortages. It may be that these are problems that the market simply cannot correct because those unable to afford legal services, even middle-class persons of moderate income, cannot afford to pay even modest fees at a level sufficient to support economically viable legal practices. The same may be true with regard to the relatively moderate fees charged by mass market legal services providers, so-called “franchise law firms,” like Jacoby & Meyers and Hyatt Legal Services, which are experiencing reduced income during the current economic downturn.
There may also be a cultural reason why attorneys, especially new attorneys, are unwilling to serve moderate-income clients for moderate fees. The legal media, and to some extent law schools and law students, have focused on “BigLaw” — the big salaries paid by big corporate law firms to the relatively few law school graduates able to land associate positions with those firms. This focus on a small, highly-compensated segment of the profession, coupled with increasingly high law school tuition and resulting student debt loads, tends to create unreasonable expectations among law students that those highly paid positions are within their reach, regardless of their standing or that of the law schools they attend.
Perhaps if law students and new law school graduates were encouraged to be more realistic about their career options, to recognize the social value and professional rewards of providing affordable legal services to people of modest means, and to adjust their career (and income) expectations accordingly, they would be willing to perform legal services for fees that those people could afford. To be sure, these lawyers should not be expected to work for fees so low that they cannot support themselves and their families; but there is a vast distance between what big firm lawyers earn and an adequate living wage.
The New York Bar Association Task Force has proposed a pilot program to design and test what it calls “a mission-driven, commercial business model to deliver a defined set of legal services to people who can afford to pay something, but who do not have practical access at the present time to such services at an affordable rate.” The program, organized by the bar association, will be based on a business model in which trained and supervised new lawyers will earn a moderate salary for providing legal services to persons of modest income. To accomplish this goal, the organizers of the program will seek start-up funding from both within and without the legal profession, and will actively recruit law students to participate as lawyers in the program.
We applaud the New York City Bar Association for undertaking this ambitious and socially important project, and wish it success. It has the potential of serving as a model for other bar associations to follow.