Rocks For Jocks, Young Lawyers Edition

Following up on the Law School edition, the issue of leaving school, license in hand, with an adequate breadth of knowledge to go out and represent living, breathing human beings remains problematic.  That would seem a reasonably uncontroversial idea, but it’s not.

When someone sent me a link to a post at Shilling Me Softly, a blawg dedicated to exposing the lies sold to those applying to law school with the expectation that becoming a lawyer is a guarantee of wealth and prestige, I saw much of the anger and confusion that gives rise to the conversion of law school inadequacy to lawyer incompetence.

Before going there, I should note that much of what Kimber Russell and the scambloggers (the name given the disaffected young lawyers who are angry at being deceived by law schools) say is absolutely true.  Neither law schools nor the ABA, nor the ancillary forces that support them, have been honest with law students, dealt with producing far more lawyers than society can absorb or sucked money (as reflected by law school debt) from students in the worst investment they will ever make.  But these are all problems I’ve discussed many times before.

That wrongs have been done to law students doesn’t lead to Russell’s conclusion that the nascent lawyer is entitled to do anything they can to make a buck.  She leads into this with support for the law student who came up with Shpoonkle.

One might expect that a future unemployed attorney who goes to such lengths to forge an innovative career for himself would be lauded for his efforts. Not so much, as evidenced by Scott Greenfield in his popular blog, Simple Justice.

This conflates two independent issues.  My disgust with the business concept has nothing to do with a law student’s entrepreneurial efforts.  Great effort.  Lousy idea. Or course, Russell’s assumption that he will be a “future unemployed attorney” is a bit presumptuous, but that’s the scamblogger’s perspective.  Mine is to always applaud initiative, but that doesn’t require me to bury my head in the sand as to the efficacy of the scheme.  This one sucked, but people with moxie tend to find a way to survive.  Maybe his next idea will be brilliant.  Why not?

Going further, however, Russell hits on the deeper problem, and one that separates new, unemployed lawyers from others:

But Mr. Greenfield is operating from the false assumption that those attorneys seeking clients from this type of online service are incompetent and unable to obtain clientele any other way.  What about young attorneys who simply have no funds to start a traditional solo practice because they are already carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in non-dischargeable student loan debt?

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I don’t know where you’ve been, Greenie, but the legal “profession” has been on the downslide for some years now, and once the ABA opened the door to legal process outsourcing, we’ve seen plenty of services previously done by expensive attorneys being shipped offshore to be done for pennies on the dollar.  And that is all at the clients’ behest, as they have finally awoken to the fact that legal fees have been wildly overvalued for decades, and much of the work can literally be done by any creature possessing opposable thumbs.

Greenie?  Without going down the road of what’s wrong with outsourcing, or the problems with the commoditization and “unbundling” of legal services, all of which are critical issues, but merit more than a quickie line in the middle of this post.  The crux of Russell’s argument is my “false assumption.” 

The hard answer is that students don’t leave law school capable of practicing law.  Getting a law license, alone, does not guarantee that a lawyer is ready to be entrusted with the freedom or fortune of another human being.  Nor is it left to the law student/new lawyer to assess his own abilities and decide that he’s good enough to take on the representation of a client on his own.  Self-assessment is a notoriously unreliable thing.

Russell’s rationale is that the business of law is in a horrible state, leaving new lawyers burdened with a mountain of debt, terrible expectations and in an untenable position.  She’s right.  Ironically, though, her beef with law schools scamming inchoate law students doesn’t translate with n00b lawyers scamming would-be clients with their qualifications.  One scam doesn’t beget another.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

There may well be some things that new lawyers can competently handle.  There are similarly things they can’t.  Distinguishing between the two is a big problem, as there is a real, honest-to-God person who pays the price of a mistake.  And this is where I part ways with Kimber.

The notion that law is a mere business, one that exists to assure lawyers with income to pay off their law school debts and provide them with a decent, if not exceptional, living has grown to be a pervasive theme among new lawyers because of the pressures they face and the overarching emphasis on marketing, tech and business development. 

While there is a business component to practicing law, and a lawyer ignores it to his detriment, the practice of law is not about business, not about the lawyer earning money, not about the lawyer at all.  The practice of law is all about the client.  Nowhere does Russell evidence concern for the excellent representation of the client. 

In fairness, Russell does demonstrate concern for the client’s wallet:

Why shouldn’t client demand drive the market for legal services, especially nowadays when we have such a surfeit of licensed attorneys?  Why is the mere notion of using technology to pair needy clients with attorneys who need the work comparable to working the corner, as Mr. Greenfield so eloquently puts it?

The answer to “why” is clear and at the heart of what distinguishes a profession from a business:  Clients depend on a lawyer to be minimally competent.  Even in the areas that some would argue have been abandoned to commoditization, whether the “simple” will or drunk driving defense, are hardly as easy as the uninitiated believe.  Screw up a will and heirs suffer after it’s too late. Plead out a DWI defendant who has a meritorious defense and he will suffer greatly for it.  Being a lawyer is hard work and serious responsibility, even if new lawyers don’t see it that way.

Belying the problem is the justification that lawyers are expensive, and that is indeed a problem.  Adding in the problem of new lawyers being in desperate straits, however, doesn’t reach the conclusion that they are entitled to do whatever is necessary to make money, including filling the need for cheap legal services.  It merely transfers the problem of new lawyers being desperate for work to clients being desperate for inexpensive legal services.

So what’s wrong with that?  Law isn’t just a business, but a profession. We place the interests of our clients ahead of our own.  What we do not do is trade off the need for revenue with the client’s need for competent representation.  And hard as it may be to accept, new lawyers do not leave law school inherently competent to practice law.  No amount of desperation changes this unfortunate reality.  No amount of demagoguery makes it acceptable for a lawyer to take on the trust of a client when he’s not prepared to fulfill that trust.

There is a wealth of problems that demand address and redress for new lawyers.  But they are our problems, not the clients’, no matter how desperate things may be.

2 comments on “Rocks For Jocks, Young Lawyers Edition

  1. Carolyn Elefant

    Like you, I agree that the scambloggers were right to call out the law schools for dishonesty and criticize the ABA for turning a blind eye. But I lost all respect for this particular scamblogger after she had the gall to criticize a 14 year old girl who published an article about her aspirations to become a lawyer. (http://shillingmesoftly.blogspot.com/2011/01/christina-lee-portrait-of-adorable.html) That she called you “Greenie” and completely missed your point about the problem of lowballing rates does nothing to change my opinion of her.

  2. SHG

    Geez, she’s certainly a very bitter person.  As for her calling me Greenie, I thought that made me sound kinda cool and groovy, but what do I know?

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