The $99 Solution

In the past week, Carolyn Elefant wrote a post at My Shingle  promoting the idea of new lawyers charging $99 per hour, and then a second  addressing some of the criticism of the idea.  At its core, her point was that it’s better to make a barely livable wage than starve.

Short term survival matters, even if it comes at the expense of longer term concerns.  It’s not that the idea is a good one, but rather that a young lawyer who earns enough to survive today has a chance to do better tomorrow.  If he doesn’t survive, then what difference does the future make?

But the mindset behind survival isn’t limited to lawyers.  It’s become the American way, and it repeats itself in almost every aspect of the fabric of our lives.  Consider that a poll found that 30% of Americans are willing to undergo TSA cavity searches if it means survival.  Forget, for the moment, that survival for lawyers is hard economic fact, while survival for airplane travelers is a product of mindless fear.  To the person who believes, it’s real.

Via Turley :

The survey was conducted online by Harris Interactive on behalf of Infowars from November 5-7 among 2059 American adults. People were asked: “Given the recent reports concerning the threat posed by terrorists who plan to implant bombs within their own bodies, how willing, if at all, would you be to undergo a TSA body cavity search in order to fly?” Thirty percent said yes.

A few years ago, the idea that we would eventually reach the point of cavity searches was something of a joke.  Not so funny anymore, is it?

There are various groups of Freedom Lovers and Tyranny Fighters who send me emails about their view of this country and their notions to change it.  For the most part, things like jury nullification, trust in their fellow countrymen and the coming revolution against the oligarchy make up their dreams of a brighter future.

They’re well-intended, but sadly mistaken.  Their fellow countrymen will be the first to throw them to the lions for their own self-interest.  It’s heart-warming to read of their hope and faith in humanity, but they tend not to spend much time watching what people are up to. It’s not that they are mean or horrible people, but they aren’t prepared to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others. 

And if that means that give in to their fears, believe what the government is selling and are prepared to pull down their knickers for safety, so be it.  You see, you can’t worry about such ethereal concepts as liberty and freedom if your body is blown into a million pieces by a terrorist bomb.  Survival first. 

And if their survival happens to give away some of your rights, causing the sound of snapping latex to be heard throughout airports across this nation, that’s the price of being an American, land of the free and home of the brave.  Well, at least home of the people who weren’t blown up by a butt-bomb.

Carolyn’s argument in favor of $99 per hour fees is a tiny piece of a larger puzzle being sold on the shoulders of a declining legal economy, giving rise to fear.  Much of the fear is justified, and those who use it to bootstrap ideas that have superficial appeal into the “new normal” without any basis for their predictions of doom without it, or that it solves the economic problems plaguing the profession, have a ready audience of hungry and desperate lawyers looking for anything that offers a promise of survival. 

Over the past week,  Jordan Furlong at Law21 has been posting daily about the “evolution of the legal services market.”  On the one hand, Jordan is a very smart guy, usually obscured by his reliance on jargon and insipid verbiage in his writing.  On the other hand, Jordan’s predictions invariably invoke false allegations of fact and take huge leaps of reason to get to where he wants to go.  They sound reasonable to the unwary, but can’t withstand scrutiny.  And yet, he’s made a name for himself as a legal futurist, and scared lawyers embrace him.

The recurring themes, whether in the legal profession’s willingness to try anything to survive or the public’s willingness to let a guy who worked at Dairy Queen last week stick his finger up their anus in the name of survival, are apparent.  Turley speaks of a nation whose expectations are being constantly reduced, to the point were we will accept pretty much any degradation with resignation.

The law has become like that too.  And if lawyers are ready to accept the $99 solution, we can hardly be relied upon to defend the rights, freedoms and liberties of society.  If that’s the case, then we’re not even worth the $99 per hour.  If the downward spiral of expectations, desperation and resignation doesn’t change with lawyers, then there isn’t much hope that anyone else will lift a finger to do anything about it.

Hear that sound?  That’s the sound of latex snapping. It sounds just like counting to 99.

14 comments on “The $99 Solution

  1. Keith Lee

    Even better, Carolyn just posted about a $75 an hour “Justice Cafe.”

    $99 an hour is so 3 days ago.

    (I’d make with the linking, but the rules)

  2. SHG

    If you  read the post carefully, you will see that the lawyers receive about half of the $75, with the other half going to the proprietor.  I like this part:

    Michael Manely, one of the founders of Justice Cafe bills it as” a way to serve people on Main Street,” and believes that the business model will attract new lawyers or those who don’t want to run their own shop.  Moreover, because the operation will have a physical location, it’s easier for the Cafe’s owners to keep an eye on younger lawyers to ensure quality control and competence.

    No doubt they are deeply concerned about serving the people on Main Street, and young lawyers’ competence. And not at all concerned with the half of the legal fee that goes to them. Carolyn says it goes to “overhead,” but I get some of it ends up in their pockets. Thankfully, they are great humanitarians and not cynical opportunists.

    Edit: Do they serve coffee too? Mocha frappuncinos?

  3. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    The obvious answer is the legal equivalent of Soylent Green . . .

    Soylent Green is . . . School District Attorneys!!??!!

  4. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Actually, from what I hear, they taste kinda like chicken — really not as bad as you might think, surprisingly . . .

  5. Shaula

    Scott, I find the Harris Poll that Turley reports on entirely plausible. However, I followed the link trail from you to Turley and back through his sources and… I couldn’t find a primary source for the poll. So I went to the Harris Interactive site, and I couldn’t find any mention of it on there, either. (And the credibility of the sites upstream from Turley are somewhat problematic.)

    Again, the poll may well be legit but I’m finding no luck linking it to Harris. FYI

    Your points on fear and legal fees still stand. Just wanted to make you aware of the source problem.

  6. SHG

    My experience with these surveys is that they’re usually proprietary, which makes it difficult to get the primary source info unless you happen to be the party for whom it was done. 

  7. Luke Rioux

    As always, great stuff here. I am a huge fan of the blog and follow closely.

    While I am sure many will not find a $100 bill sufficiently valuable to use as toilet paper others might disagree.

    I am a criminal defense lawyer in Maine. Here, those of us who are sufficiently qualified to accept court appointment to homicide cases, get paid $50 per hour for the privilege. Now I am not saying that this is a sufficient rate of pay, but it is what we get.

    So to hear $99 per hour called a barley livable wage and compared to anal fisting, my feelings are, how shall I say, mixed?

  8. SHG

    So how’s that $50/hr homicide rate working out for you? Maybe in Maine it’s survivable, but most other places, you would be sucking wind at that rate.

    There’s a tendency, when one is doing absolutely awful, to argue that others should do as badly as you are. It’s very misguided, but I suspect you know it and just couldn’t help it.

  9. Luke Rioux

    Well put. I am not in favor of the $99 thing and I am no fan of the $50 rate. Here, we are lucky to have a little lower cost of living, rent and general overhead is less and so I like to think that we are doing somewhat better than awful. That said, $50 is not great and we are working hard to change it. But there is a tendency for those doing very well to scoff at those willing to work for something less than the maximum rate. Perhaps that willingness erodes the value of the entier endeavor, but I think some (I know many in my area) charge excessive fees that undercut our industry’s credibility.

    I am not saying that $50 or $99 are a good idea, they’re bad ideas. While they do speak to the oversupply crap lawyers, they are also, in part, a response to the top end of the pay scale and the perception that quality legal services are for the wealthy only, and that the rest should just shuffle off to prison. There is some middle ground I think. I am trying to find it anyway.

  10. SHG

    Representing the indigent defendant, whether for $99, $50 or pro bono, is an honorable reason to suffer less than adequate compensation. We do this because someone must stand up for defend the accused, though it’s a societal duty while the financial burden falls only on the lawyer. Go figure.

    But the honorable rep of indigent defendants is entirely different than deliberately spiraling down on fees to be the cheapest guy around for the sole purpose of trying to score a case or make a buck. Suddenly, it’s not so honorable to do cheap, high volume work.

    As for top end guys, I don’t think they are scoffing at anyone (though I can understand why it might feel that way), but trying to lift all boats with the rising tide. As the profession spirals financially downward, it’s not good for anyone.

  11. Luke Rioux

    Point taken. My comparing the chronic underfunding of indigent defense to this race to the bottom $99 thing is apples to oranges.

    I suppose I just had an emotional reaction when I read about the horor of accepting twice the pay that I have, sometimes, worked so hard to earn.

  12. Dan

    I have never found my hourly rate, whether its $500, $300, $99 of $7.25 an hour to matter. Litigation costs lots of money and regardless of the rate, analyzing or drafting pleadings, documents and facts, and properly researching a dispositive motion will rack up a figure in the thousands pretty quickly. I’ve come across two kinds of clients- those who can readily part with those thousands of dollars, and those who can’t part with a dime.

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