The ABA: We Will Deign To Listen

Forget the fact that this involves something that has been discussed at length, if not ad nauseam. The idea is new to the incoming president of the Amerian Bar Association, and therefore, well, new. So what if others have pondered, discussed, argued about it for years before it came onto the radar of the very important officials who think of themselves as Leaders.

Via the ABA Journal:

Accepting the presidential gavel today at the gathering of the ABA House of Delegates, new ABA President James Silkenat of New York laid out a series of initiatives he intends to push during his term, which runs through next year’s ABA Annual Meeting in August 2014.

In what may turn out to be Silkenat’s signature project, he discussed the joining of two pressing issues for the legal profession: access to justice and the dearth of jobs for newly minted lawyers.

On the bright side, Silkenat isn’t blaming kid lawyers for being too stupid to realize that they just blew a hundred grand on a worthless education, thus distinguishing himself from his predecessor.  Indeed, some might consider Silkenat’s recognition that there are problems as a huge step forward.

On the dark side, a bit of effort might have clued Silkenat in to some of the problems with his Menckian solution to two very difficult problems. First, that these “newly minted lawyers” are required to start paying back their student loans six months after graduation. Plus, they probably want to eat, maybe buy big boy shoes and will need a tie if they’re to go to court.

Second, that these same newly minted lawyers are only lawyers in the nominal sense, still in need of a bit of seasoning before being let loose to wreak havoc on society.  This notion is so obvious that even the Puddle picked up on it, because the poor have enough problems already without being used as lab rats for the baby lawyer experiment.

But the ABA appears not to have considered any of this. What seems patently obvious, and the subject of so much thoughtful and concerned discussion, eludes the very important officials who have reached the pinnacle of grocery clerk success by their bar association titles. How is this possible?

The answer may be found, inadvertently, in a comment to the ABA Journal’s blurb on Silkenat’s earth-shattering initiative:

Tannenbaum Comment

Co-chair of the Task Force? Very impressive.  And as you sit on the co-chair throne of your task force, you would welcome comments and suggestions? From, like, nobody lawyers who aren’t important enough to be on official ABA committees?  Ah, your liege. You are so good and kind to the insignificant, the unworthy.

Or perhaps a better reaction might be for the incoming President of the ABA, assuming he wants to make this his “signature project” so they build statues of him and the minstrels will sing songs of how he saved a generation of baby lawyers and the poor, downtrodden and lawyerless, to urge the members of the Task Force for the creation of the Legal Access Jobs Corps to get off their ample butts and find out what the blawgosphere has been discussing and pondering for years already.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate that Silkenat is concerned with matters that he, and the ABA, should be concerned about. Indeed, it’s a step forward, even if about five years behind, ahem, others. But the attitude reflected in the Tanenbaum comment, as if they are doing the legal profession a favor by their willingness to consider the insignificant “suggestions” of the groundlings who haven’t been elevated to Grand Poobah of the ABA, sucks.

It is astounding that the ABA appears to be utterly unaware that it is so far behind the curve, so completely out of touch with both the problems and the efforts at solutions, and yet so grandiose in its self-importance that it would deign to consider the ideas of the supplicants who would come before it.  What the hell has happened to the legal profession to make these lawyers think themselves so important?

The problems on Silkenat’s radar are real, for both the “newly minted lawyers” who struggle with the very real burden of how to pay off their loans, and for the wide swathe of the public who can’t afford competent legal representation.  And they are real every day, even if the ABA figures they can wait until their task force reports back at the 2014 mid-year meeting.

If the ABA wants to be relevant, or even play a role in fixing these problems, then it’s time to climb down from the mount  and get in the trenches with the rest of us. It’s not that we’re unwilling to help, but we’re not inclined to kiss your ring either. Sorry, guys, but being the Grand Poobah of the ABA just isn’t that special, and finally coming to the realization that there are monumental problems out there that others have been grappling with for years isn’t nearly as impressive as you think it is.

13 comments on “The ABA: We Will Deign To Listen

      1. Pop Goes the Wheezel

        I suspect you got it confused with the movie, “The Royal Tenenbaums”. An honest mistake, it appears. Could happen to anyone . . .

  1. BL1Y

    “Second, that these same newly minted lawyers are only lawyers in the nominal sense, still in need of a bit of seasoning before being let loose to wreak havoc on society.”

    This needs to be drilled into the head of every law school dean and professor. Increasing supply of lawyers will lower the price of legal services, but increasing the number of JDs does not truly increase the supply of lawyers. Only increasing the number of entry level jobs so young grads can get trained will increase the supply of lawyers and thus make (competent) legal services more available to the poor.

    SHG, any thoughts on how to actually get more lawyers trained?

    Schools are adding more clinical programs, but that’s just a first step towards learning how to practice. Working part time for 3 months doesn’t make you all that competent.

    The best idea I can come up with is to normalize part-time legal education, with the expectation being that you’ll work part-time at a law firm for the 4-5 years you’re earning your JD. If “newly minted lawyer” meant someone with the knowledge, skills and experience of a third year associate, I suspect they’d have a much easier time finding work. But, this still leaves open the question of who pays for the training. Will law firms pay some sort of (low) hourly rate to their law student employees, will the students be expected to work for no compensation at all, or will students be expected to pay for the privilege of working?

    1. SHG Post author

      The notion that law schools can produce client-safe lawyers is absurd. The clinical programs will help, but will never suffice to produce practice-ready lawyers. I agree with you that the only way baby lawyers morph from narcissistic entitled gnats into competent lawyers is through the ordinary course of work experience, with proper supervision and, most importantly, mentoring (which too many experienced lawyers are unwilling to do).

      They need positions (not necessarily jobs) where they can learn, earn a living appropriate to what they’re contributing and grow. Society, as a whole, needs to man up to the need for lawyers for the poor, both criminal and civil, as part of the perfectly regulated world its creates. Neither lawyers nor firms can make jobs appear out of thin air, nor funds to pay for baby lawyers to learn, if people aren’t retaining counsel. And while some contend that the current DIY trend is the future, it will only last until enough people figure out that its a lousy substitute for competent counsel and end up suffering for their cheapo mistakes.

      The first step is to close half the law schools, create a supply no greater than the ability of society to absorb them at a living wage. Baby lawyers may not be worth much, but they will never become experienced lawyers if they can’t survive. And cannibalizing our own, creating incentives for lies and deception, helps no one.

      1. BL1Y

        What would be a living-earning non-job “position”?

        As for the DIY culture, you may overestimate people’s ability to learn from mistakes, and underestimate their desire to never give money to a lawyer. And, in some very narrow areas, I think DIY does make sense. If you’re a small business owner engaging in a bunch of transactions that are more or less the same every time, you’ll want a lawyer to help you get started, but I think after a while you should be able to learn how to write your own contracts. Active members of the bar don’t have a monopoly on studying legal practice. …Criminal law on the other hand? I wouldn’t risk representing myself, even for a misdemeanor.

        About society needing to man up to pay for its legal system, I absolutely agree. It’s embarrassing the low level of funding public defenders and legal aid gets, as well as the lack of funding for public law schools. But, that issue is going to be a political non-starter. You’ll never get funding to put money in the pockets of the greedy scumbag lawyers who are just leeches on society, and certainly not so that they can keep drug dealers and rapers out of prison.

        If the funding is going to come, it might have to come from practitioners themselves. What would you think about a 0.25% fee on the revenues on firms with more than $250,000 in revenues per attorney? With that amount of revenue, no one’s going to suffer any loss in quality of life due to the fee, but it would raise something on the order of half a billion dollars per year. Maybe it’s just my small town southern roots, but half a billion dollars is a lot of money to me.

        1. SHG Post author

          Consider this a bit of greybeard institutional memory. Long before LegalZoom was a twinkle in Shapiro’s wallet, there were many small businesses that used legal forms (readily available from stationary stores) regularly and managed quite well without a lawyer for their routine needs. There was a time when individuals did their own real estate closing and simple wills. For a brief period, when there was enough money floating about that people could waste it on cocaine, they started using lawyers to do the pedestrian legal chores that used to do themselves. Lawyers got a bit fat and lazy off this excess business, and when money got tight and they started to fight, it disappeared. It didn’t make or break the profession, and in the long term won’t be consequential as the users of LegalZoom, etc., were never clients anyway.

          What did hurt was when larger businesses came to realize that Biglaw was soaking them for all they were worth, and figured out they could cut out a wholly non-productive use of revenues without any real pain. The problem for us now is that we have to return to 1985, before everyone got so damn greedy and the system became so bloated. And the by-product of the epiphany that Biglaw was sucking everyone dry is that we are all suspect as lawyers.

          As for a tax on lawyer to pay the cost of indigent legal representation, I emphatically do not agree. It is not a burden on lawyers, but a burden on society. If society wants to arrest and prosecute every poor guy on the street, then they have to pay for the pleasure. If society wants to regulate every burp and fart, then they have to pay for the lawyer to navigate their regulations for the poor. Much as the cost of prisons is the price of making every crime above jaywalking punishable by life without parole, the cost of over-regulation is needing a lawyer to help people address their otherwise ordinary and pedestrian needs. TANSTAAFL. They must pay the price of their choices.

          1. BL1Y

            I agree about BigLaw being a giant money suck. It makes a lot more sense for large companies to develop in house legal departments. A first year BigLaw associate bills at around $300/hr but earns roughly $80/hr. Assuming a 1:1 ratio of salary to benefits+overhead, you can hire the same attorney, pay him the same amount, but only spend $160/hr. That’s some huge savings.

            The problem for small firms is that they might not have 2000 hours a year worth of legal work, so they’d be overspending, but I think you can mitigate this if your in house lawyer picks up some slack in other departments, like HR, and gets to learn those other areas a bit to help him on the law side of the work.

            I don’t think it’s greed that’s really the issue, but instead laziness and a CYA attitude. A lot of people, especially in middle and upper-middle class white collar jobs care very little about their company and whatever it is they produce. They just want to collect their paychecks, put in their years until they retire, and do this with as little effort and hassle as possible. Every hiring decision puts your ass on the line. Every managerial decision does the same. So why risk your job when you can outsource the legal work and claim less responsibility (or none at all) when something goes wrong? Just look at how many companies throw money at consultants in order to get the green light to do whatever they wanted to do in the first place; all the consultant does is buy the manager a buffer against criticism.

            On the issue of funding public interest legal work, I completely agree it’s the burden of society at large. But, I disagree with this: “They must pay the price of their choices.” Must they? If they must, then we wouldn’t be discussing this. Society would have been sued for the money they must pay, and a judgment entered against them, and the sheriff sent to collect. The problem is that society doesn’t have to pay. It’s chosen not to, and those of us who recognize how screwed up that is don’t have the force necessary to make them pay for it.

            Given the choices of having legal funding continue to go under-funded, or having the legal profession pick up the slack, I have to go with the latter. An easy choice since I won’t have to pay any more, but I like to think that when I was in BigLaw I’d have been willing to shell out the $7.69 a week I would have been asked to chip in.

            1. SHG Post author

              Then let me rephrase my “society has to…” point. If we cover it for society, then society gets a free ride on its obligation to the poor. It’s not the cost to lawyers, but the free lunch aspect that I find unpalatable. I will not negotiate with terrorists, or let society off the hook. It’s a matter of principle.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you on one point:

    “And the by-product of the epiphany that Biglaw was sucking everyone dry is that we are all suspect as lawyers.”

    That may well have increased distrust for lawyers; but the general belief that attorneys are making large amounts of money for very little contribution to society goes back, probably, to the first client who lost; certainly there were jokes about this in Roman times.

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