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Still Two Sides of the Bar in the Legal Profession

Two lawyers walk into a bar ... One orders a round of drinks for the house. The other one puts on an apron and serves it.

Is the above quote just another silly lawyer joke -- or is it an accurate reflection of the current state of the legal profession?  That's the issue that Greg Burns tackles in this lengthy piece in Sunday's Chicago Tribune.

Burns argues that the upper fourth of earners in the legal profession have continued to prosper, while the bottom three-fourths have lost ground. At the top of the spectrum, mega law firms with their millionaire partners and -- at least up until the past few recessionary months -- their ever-increasing associate paychecks continue to grow, with many corporate counsel still willing to pay large firm rates. At the other end, it's harder for those who don't find large-firm jobs to make a living because the rising cost of legal education means that smaller paychecks don't stretch as far. Most graduates who accept lower-paying jobs in public interest can barely pay their bills after meeting student loan obligations -- a point well illustrated by Jen Wrenn's experience, who tends bar on the weekends to supplement her prosecutor's salary. And at all ends of the spectrum, there's dissatisfaction. Lower-earning lawyers stress about finances, while those earning big paychecks stress about long hours or lack of meaningful work.

Burns' current description of the profession seems accurate; indeed, we've discussed these trends previously here. What's more interesting are the predictions for the future:

Academic researchers believe change is coming to the profession. John Coates of Harvard Law School, for one, has a clear vision of how economics will reshape long-standing practices. He foresees the American Bar Association and state bar examiners coming under pressure to reduce the cost of law school by relaxing rules. That could mean accrediting online programs or allowing two-year degrees instead of the standard three....Restrictions on practicing law without a license also will relax, Coates predicts, so paralegals can handle house closings, leases, simple contracts and wills. More legal work will be carried out at a discount offshore, as well...Eventually, Coates says, the great divide in lawyer incomes will divide again, this time into three categories: The super-highly-paid, a middle tier of the highly paid and, by far the biggest group, everybody else.

In my view, these future predictions overlook the way that technology is starting to and will continue to break down the barriers in our profession. Lower technology costs -- for legal research, case management, document automation and client relation software -- enable lawyers to leave their firm with a few clients and handle the same matters as they did at their large firm without losing a large portion or revenues to overhead. Technology also allows multiple solo and small-firm lawyers to team up in virtual arrangements to offer the same broad range of expertise as a large firm. While some clients will always want or need a large firm, many will find that smaller, specialized shops suit their needs. And though the bar may relax rules on conflicts, that won't solve the problem of conflicts that is inevitable with large-firm growth. After all, some clients would rather not be represented by the same firm that represents the parent corporation of the subsidiary that's suing them -- even if permitted by bar rules. Finally, technology will also help solo and smaller-firm lawyers to figure out ways to deliver lower-cost service while still making a profit. These lawyers may not earn as much as their superearning peers at the associate-leveraged, megafirms, but they'll still do quite, quite well.

So readers, you tell me. Is the legal profession on course towards an even deeper divide between the "haves" and "have nots?" Or will we lawyers find a way to unite at the bar, instead of standing separated on two sides?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 8, 2008 at 06:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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