Almost two weeks ago Dupednontraditional did an excellent post on the differing conclusions that the ABA's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education report compared to the Illinois State Bar Association's "Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services" report.
Then, last Thursday, dybbuk123 took down the self-interested New York City Bar Association Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession's 135 page report. Though it purported to be broadly representative of both the New York and national legal profession, dybbuk123 reported that the makeup of the Task Force was almost completely made up of elite lawyers (BigLaw, General Counsel, Chief Legal Counsel) or law school employees (including eight law school deans). Dybbuk deserves a nod for holding his nose and making it through the whole report, which was so out-of-touch with reality that it could only have been the result of a collaboration between law school deans and BigLaw partners.
Though we often feel (rightly) that us average folks in the legal profession are not getting the support we need from the top, whether it is the ABA, NALP, or state bar associations, things have been starting to change. In June, as covered by Dupednontraditional, Illinois put forth a report that looks like something that OTLSS contributors could have come up with.
Not to be left out by their neighbors to the south, the State Bar of Wisconsin created the "Challenges Facing New Lawyers Task Force" to address the serious issues, which they did in the "Special Task Force Report".
The members of the task force, unlike the NYC task force, includes a healthy mix of law school employees, non-profit lawyers, and representatives from small to medium-large firms.
The "origin story" of the task force was when the State Bar's President published concerns about new lawyers entering "the job market when it was at an all-time low while trying to support an unprecedented debt burden" last year. There's no mincing the words here. Instead of the overindulgent and self-aggrandizing manner that the NYC task force employed, the CFNLTF (Wisconsin Task Force) simply stated that it's goal is to "make preliminary recommendations to help alleviate concerns," as it believes that "any changes to the structure of the legal education system . . . must be led by a united effort on the national level, with the ABA leading such efforts." While most of us do not have much faith in the ABA, the ABA will have to eventually come around if issues are to be solved, and pressure from Illinois and Wisconsin can only get the ball rolling.
Among the actions the CFNLTF pursued were "listening sessions" at the law schools of Marquette and the University of Wisconsin Madison, where law students and newer lawyers aired concerns. The special report actually noted that some of the job opportunities for recent law graduates "paid even less than one might expect to earn as a barista . . . (or didn't) offer basic benefits such as health insurance."
The CFNLTF also compiled a survey of 599 young lawyers (about 70% have graduated since 2008), most of which whom worked in smaller firms. The survey found that more than half had found their loans to have majorly impacted their lives, while a quarter expected to not pay off the debt for 6-10 years, and about a third expected to be stuck with their loans for more than 20 years.
I'm not going to continue to summarize the survey results much longer; it's exactly what you would expect: most found their pay and benefits to be lower than they expected, most didn't learn about the difficulties facing lawyers until they were already enrolled in law school, and most who went to law school "wanted to help others or serve justice." It's encouraging that the State Bar of Wisconsin is paying attention to the future of the legal profession, and while many in the legal ed reform movement have been beating these particular drums for a few years, it is clear that the momentum is clearly in our favor.
Another survey the CFNLTF reported on was the "2013 Economics of the Law practice in Wisconsin Survey Report," and though they note that the subsamples are small, it replicates what we know: that generally people in larger firms are paid more, and generally people with more experience charge more per hour.
The report has some good ideas on how to positively affect young lawyers in the short term, such as giving bigger discounts to young lawyers for CLE, the bar exam, and dues, as well as creating mentorship programs and enhancing law school curriculum to focus more on practice management (the report noted that one participant in the listening sessions didn't think that "classes were offered in law school that addressed client relationship and lawyering skills", and I thought it was called "Law" school!).
However, we all know that the long-term health of the legal profession is at stake, and band-aids that don't only slow the bleeding are not enough. This is where the CFNLTF began to show its limits (as it candidly admitted in the beginning of the report).
Most of its long-term suggestions are general, are not especially novel, or are potentially not helpful at all. For instance, a small paragraph describes a "Legal Match Program" which would steer younger lawyers to "find jobs in more rural or other outlying areas," without addressing the underlying issues of such a program: there are a limited amount of paying clients, the local attorneys are firmly entrenched, and salaries and benefits would be too low to adequately handle typical law school debt. The "Law School Funded Court Clerk Position" apes the Massachusetts Bar Association Task Force's proposal that law schools pay students to be law clerks for the courts, which in theory could be helpful to many parties if done well. The report is on stronger grounds when it addresses using the third year of law school as a "residency" year or addressing student loan repayment, but they do not go as far as the Illinois report's suggestion that the funding mechanism of law school be radically altered.
The report ends with the recommendation that a permanent body be created in order to keep consistent oversight. While this should have always been the case, it gives a little more momentum.
After reading the whole report and summarizing parts of it, it is apparent that its best contributions are the "listening surveys" and getting a good cross-section of the states' lawyers to participate in the task force, rather than its specific short and long-term proposals. However, by no means does that alter the fact that Wisconsin has started something that they can build off of, and it is another thumb on the scale on the side of the law school reform movement.
The "listening surveys" performed at the states' two law schools need to be expanded to include the rest of the law schools. Politicians do town hall meetings in order to keep a thumb on the pulse of their constituents, and people with power in the legal profession need to be doing the same. Imagine the look on the law deans and professors if their recent graduates are lining up in front of a microphone telling them about their $1200 monthly loan payments and $45,000/year law job, or someone with $200,000 in student loans making $18,0000 a year without health insurance in a "JD (dis)Advantage" position. For that very reason I think that it would be unlikely, but one can only dream.
In conclusion, the CFNLTF has made an important, if too-short, contribution to the growing number of State Bar task forces. Hopefully it continues the trend, and puts pressure on the NYC task force and the ABA to change their tune.