Sunday, May 12, 2013

Legal Urban Legend Myth Buster #2



There is also a severe disconnect with people who are not actually trying to make a living practicing law who believe young, newly-minted lawyers can start servicing the low-income population and somehow make a living wage including debt service for themselves.

I recently ran across an article entitled "Anti-Law School Blogging Drastically Effecting Law School Application Rates," written by a law student named Savir Punia at the University of Minnesota Law School. Mr. Punia, after first claiming that law school reported post-graduation employment data has not been proven to be either misleading or innocent (really?!?), argues:
My main contention is with the argument of an oversupply of lawyers in the United States. Currently, there exists a severe shortage of legal help for low-income individuals. New York State's chief judge, Jonathon Lippman, has responded to this by moving ahead with a groundbreaking rule requiring law students to perform 50 hours of pro bono legal services as a condition of admission to the state bar. Other states are seriously considering this requirement as well. Furthermore, according to Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California, there is a mismatch between demand and supply. She went on to say, that there is exploding demand for legal services for "ordinary folk lawyers" and "big corporate ones." [Emphasis added.]

I highly doubt there is an "exploding demand" for legal services for "big corporate clients" given the structural shifts taking place in the profession. Setting that aside, there may very well be a severe shortage of "ordinary folk lawyers" for "low-income individuals." That would be because those jobs almost by definition DON'T PAY. How exactly does working for low-income individuals who can't pay you for your services provide employment to a young lawyer?

School is a false economy. In school, all of the work you produce is done for grades. The real world turns that school paradigm on its head. It isn't about getting a good grade anymore; it is about getting paid for your work. It doesn't matter how brilliant your work product is. Someone has to pay you to do it. Working for people who are barely getting by in life means you too are going to barely get by in life. Legal services are a luxury item for people who can afford specialists to solve their problems for them. Low income people know that problems usually sort themselves out only to be replaced by other problems.

It's really unclear to me how requiring young attorneys to provide pro bono legal services helps the young attorneys. Sure, it gives them some limited hands-on experience, but the experience likely isn't going to help them moving forward. Being proficient at doing work that doesn't pay, like representing low income tenants being evicted, isn't typically a path to an established well-paying practice. It just leads to more work that doesn't pay.

Working for people who can't pay for your services and being required to provide pro bono legal services as a requirement of holding a license, works against a young lawyer making a living. It is a  social feel-good, expensive hurdle to entry of the profession and nothing more. The legal equivalent of "good grades" and "community service" for a student does not equal self-sufficient living-wage employment for an adult.

The myth that "there isn't an oversupply of lawyers because otherwise there wouldn't be a shortage of legal representation for low-income people" is BUSTED.


  1. I agree. I get sick of academia suggesting there's a career in helping the poor. I guess they are right, though. There is a career; just no money. It's just like the law school employments figures. 92% have jobs, but half aren't law jobs.

    1. There is a career; just no money.


  2. Yeah - the poor are the people that I turn away. They will suck the life and money out of a new solo lawyer. Only public defenders can represent the poor, if people like Lippman really cared he would help these organizations get funding to hire new lawyers.

  3. With states cutting their budgets and IOLTA funds no longer enjoying the gravy train days of the real estate boom, public interest jobs, including state funded legal services are being scaled down to the core. They are being told to do more with less. A colleague who has worked for legal services for 15 years recently told me that she now has to do her own "word processing" and she has to take out the office's trash since the cleaning service contract cost $75K per year. She also no longer receives subsidized parking.

    This brings me to the subject of pro bono work. I have nothing against pro bono. Hell I even take on a pro bono case or two every year. The problem I have with pro bono is that in some states you are MANDATED to do it. I can think of no other profession that forces you under the mantra of "privilege" to engage non-paying clients and handle their often complex legal affairs. I resent the idea of getting a call from the bar association or an assignment judge and being told "you have to take this matrimonial case which involves the equitable distribution of QDRO related benefits and trusts," especially since I don't practice matrimonial dissolution law. It is a crazy system where one has to give away time for free to work for some of the most ungrateful people on the planet.

    Eighteen years ago, during my second year of practice, I was assigned a pro bono matter. It was a habeus petition and the client was incarcerated. He would call my office collect about 5-7 times a day (one day he called me 38 times-I was out of the office because my ex-wife was involved in a car accident) asking the same questions: "what's going on in my case?," "when am I getting released?," "why aren't you moving heaven and earth to get me out of this hellhole?" To make a long story short, his petition was granted and he was released after a couple of months. Did I get a thank you? NO. Instead, the released client called me a few months after and told me that the prison officials had stolen his jewelry as it was not returned. He wanted me to sue the prison for conversion, 1982, etc. When I told him I would not take his case, he angrily told me "You are MY lawyer. You are supposed to fight for my rights. You have an obligation to get my personal property back." I was upset by his words so I told him just because I worked for free on one case for him did not make me his slave for the rest of his life. The result? He filed an ethics complaint against me. The complaint was dismissed as it was ludicrous but I still had to report it to my malpractice insurance carrier (and still do to this day). The following year, my professional liability insurance premium nearly doubled. So much for pro bono. Of course most of the judges and bar association hacks who praise pro bono have never done a pro case in their entire career. It's a classic case of "Do as I say, not as I do." I remember a few years ago, a lawyer in Texas challenged pro bono and the IOLTA fund claiming it was indentured servitude and a monetary shakedown. The courts, of course, dismissed the lawsuit. So yes, the law schools are correct in saying their is an abundance of clients out there. The problem is, they don't want to pay you and expect you to work for free while you are servicing six figure student loans. But heck, at least you are fulfilling your dream to serve and represent the downtrodden and disenfranchised members of society.

    1. this post should be in every glossy LS brochure for the (mostly) females that "want to help the poor/public" but that is just wishful thinking.

  4. They can pay. The real problem with "serving" the "poor" in America is that these people have been conditioned from an early age to expect certain things (health care, anyone?) for free.

    Kind of hard to make a living giving it to them at that price.

    Also, requiring attorneys to work for free violates the 13th Amendment.

    1. I agree with you that forcing attorneys to perform pro bono work violates the 13th Amendment. However, this is not a novel counter-argument to pro bono. The corrupt courts have ruled that YOU DO NOT HAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO PRACTICE LAW. Therefore, no one is forcing you to work for free. They have ruled that pro bono work is a condition of a privilege you earn. They also reason that requiring pro bono work is no different than requiring you to take a written and road test to get your driver's license. Remember, practicing law is a "privilege" so you have to pay for that privilege (as if wasting 3 years in law school, incurring $125K in loans and passing the bar exam isn't enough). In fact, I forget the name of the case but the court told an attorney that no one is forcing him to do pro bono work. If he didn't want to do it, all he had to do was simply surrender his law license. Of course, this legal reasoning is horseshit. What other profession requires its members to work for free all for the "privilege" of being called a professional? I don't see these same judges waiving their honorarium fees or adjunct salaries when they moonlight. Yet, you are expected to represent the dregs of society for free. Law schools don't discuss these ugly realities of practicing law. And don't get me started on the bar association's THEFT of your client's accruing interest in your trust account. Want to know what the word is for legalized theft? It's called IOLTA.

    2. ^ There's no constitutional right to work on a plantation, either.

      Um, right?

  5. I agree, but you're being too generous.
    First, if Judge Lippman really cared, he's require ALL attorneys to do the 50 hours. There are a few fat cats left-they've got the time and the money. To burden new attorneys is a true outrage; these are the people with the least and to order them to perform 50 free hours of work is indefensible.
    Second, both the law professor quoted and the law student author cite no statistics to support their arguments. But let's get real-there is no demand for "big corporate" lawyers-BigLaw has that covered nicely, thank you. And the harsh secret of "ordinary folk" lawyers is that ordinary folks, by and large, don't want to pay anything for legal services. Don't trust me; I was a solo for a several years and this was my experience-but ask other small firm practitioners. The unpleasant truth is that if people have to pay out of their own pockets, they don't pay. So while there may or may not be a demand for "ordinary folk" lawyers(again, no empirical support for this), nobody wants to pay a lawyer-period. That is the unpleasant truth for anyone hanging a shingle.

  6. In the past and currently there is a 3-5 billion dollar subsidy to American law schools in the present student loan system. Chop that in half and use the rest to fund legal services for the poor and voila!

    We've killed two birds with one stone: the oversupply of debt-ridden lawyers is halved and there will be subsidies for the poor to get legal services.

  7. When clients are not paying, they put a value on your time at zero dollars per hour, and they therefore call ten times a day, demand that you pursue frivolous aspects of their case, and generally are many times more demanding than clients even paying cut rate fees.

    When things are free, people are inclined to overuse and waste.

    One single pro bono client can take more time than your entire caseload combined.

  8. As somebody who participates in attorney hiring, I know that we typically receive 300 - 400 applications for an opening. Given that, we could limit hiring to HYS, but I'm not satisfied that HYS guarantees a applicant who will pay careful attention to detail, as my office requires. On his resume, Mr. Punia lists his article, "Anti-Law School Blogging Drastically Effecting Law School Application Rates."

    Mr. Punia, am I correct that you mean "Affecting" rather than "Effecting" [sound of application being tossed into recycling bin]?

  9. I think the use of the shorthand phrase "pro bono" is telling.

    For whose good are we really talking about? The full phrase 'pro bono publico' is literally interpreted as in the public's (i.e., society's) benefit. Yet much of the talk about pro bono today that is being advanced by the legal academy involves furnishing traditional, private representation to people whose legal problems arise from the fact they lack money to meet their contractual obligations. This is different from taking cases that establish an important point of principle that might otherwise not command a fee, or representing an unpopular client whose rights are being trampled upon.

    "For free" may be commendable and generous, but it is different from "for the public good."

  10. my firm received a bunch of pro bono cases one year and I was in the team that was managing the cases. we had about 20 cases. And from what I can remember, all the clients did things they weren't supposed to - destroy land lord property, not pay bills, etc. not one had a winning case. we resolved them the best we could. my friend represented a client who got kicked out of the apartment after not paying rent for 6 months. he received almost a daily call to borrow money from him. we never did it again.

    I now did some pro bono work for people related to my practice area, but I am very careful about who I help. its not worth the trouble

  11. I don't mind a pro-bono case now and then, but i refuse to represent people who choose to drive without bi insurance, cause an accident, and are then seeki a free defense I've had a few of those. I did learn during my law school clinical practice days that the some poor often have a sense of entitlement. No thank yous for how i helped them, just more demands about what i could do for them now. After all, i was a rich law student who owed them.