Monday, July 5, 2010

Asking Why?

Two years ago, a lifetime in the legal economy, Professor Bainbridge asked if the law was a "mature" industry:

If law in fact is a mature industry, we face a problem of systemic oversupply. The rate at which demand for new lawyers grows has permanently leveled off. Economic recovery will help, but it will not change the fundamental structural changes in the market for lawyers.

The Prof believes "we have been growing the number of law schools as though the demand for lawyers would permanently continue to experience exponential growth..." He thinks we should close the bottom third. Of course that will never happen - law schools are money makers. The fact that all law schools today are facing their own jobless graduates is of no moment.

When I began law school in Florida 18 years ago, there were 6 law schools. Now there are eleven. That's a new law school in one state in about every 3 1/2 years.

But say there are too many lawyers and you'll get two answers - "there's always room for good new lawyers," and "of course you'll say that now that you're a lawyer."

There are too many lawyers. More importantly, there are too many new lawyers and law students that have no idea why they went to law school. It wasn't to become an advocate, per se, it was to get a good paying job.

Society is much to blame. The reason a high school diploma today is worthless is because we now encourage everyone to go to college. I know some plumbers and electricians that do pretty well financially, but we no longer encourage high school students to learn trades. A sociology degree that leads to nothing is more important. Now that we encourage everyone to go to college, a college degree is worthless. Used to be an MBA was impressive - that was until everyone was getting an MBA on the weekends.

Now it's law.

More lawyers don't create more cases - and don't talk to me about the "frivolous" law suits - those are just cases with which you don't agree. More family lawyers don't create more divorce. More criminal lawyers don't create more arrests. More lawyers just create competition between more lawyers. We eat our own. Competition just makes legal services cheaper (which is not necessarily the same as "affordable.") Nothing wrong with cheap quality, as long as both exist, and they rarely do. You normally get one or the other - cheap, or quality. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes.

In today's economy, getting lucky with legal services is often all that matters. A client buys a will on-line and hopes it works. Of course they'll only know if there is a message left for them at the pearly gates. In my world, there's some new kids on the block charging 20% of what I charge. Are they good, quality, experienced lawyers? Does it matter? Yes, to some it matters. To most, it doesn't. People will always say that if they needed a lawyer, they would seek out the best and find a way to hire that lawyer. Those are people who are not typically clients. Remember, most people never need a lawyer, and if they do, it's usually for a transaction like a house sale, will, or divorce. Most people have a number in mind, and whichever lawyer they meet, or talk to, or email with, that says that number, is hired.

As the economy worsens, and yes, it's worsening, struggling lawyers will have to make a choice - lower your fees to the point where the increase in clients is borderline unmanagable, take on matters for which you have no experience, or get out and find another way to make money. Hopefully by now most graduates are over the theory that going into massive debt in law school entitled them to a six-figure job. It ain't happening. Not for a while.

I've said before here that the good part of this recession is that lawyers who never wanted to be lawyers will get out. Would you want to go to a doctor who was just in it for the money? If you were here to make money and you're not - making money, you won't stay. Even those that are here because they wanted to be lawyers are getting out. Families have to be fed, mortgages have to be paid, Starbucks coffee and new iPhones have to be paid for.

The other good thing about this recession is that lawyers and law students are being forced to ask a complicated question about their venture into this profession.


Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark

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