Lawyers: Are There Too Many of Us?

It seems like EVERYONE is talking about innovation these days.  My State Bar has focused a lot on it lately.  And well, for good reason.  Our profession is going somewhere, but where?  It is a scary road as everything attorneys knew 20-30 years ago is being turned upside down.  Big Law is learning it cannot be so BIG.  So, as those firms shore up their faltering businesses, they are slimming down. Many of these Big Law Firms are emulating Small Law Firms in how they do business and the products they use.  My question then, is where does that leave the solo?

Law Schools are churning out more and more attorneys.  Are there too many attorneys though?  I find myself making this statement often- mostly from the general feel of the market in this region- west central Wisconsin.  However, on what fact?

National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold stated this past summer:

“It is not true that there are too many lawyers—indeed even today most Americans do not have adequate access to affordable legal services—but the traditional market for large numbers of law graduates by large law firms seeking equity-track new associates is not likely to ever return to what it was in 2006 or 2007, and thus aggregate earning opportunities for the class as a whole are not likely to return to what they were before the recession.”

So, what do the numbers actually say?  Do I have a leg to stand on when I say law schools are churning more and more attorneys out?  Well, surprisingly, the numbers have dropped according to the most recent American Bar Association data.  I started college in 1999, started law school in 2003, and graduated in 2006.  Since starting college there are 19 new law schools.  However, since the peak of enrollment during this period (147,525 in 2010-11), immediately post-recession too mind you, there has been a decrease (139,262 in 2012-13).  Almost back to the levels they were when I entered law school in 2003 (137,676).  These numbers are still higher than they were in say the 1980’s, and certainly higher than they were in the 1960’s.  However, as James Leipold stated, there is a need for legal services.

Year
2012 – 2013
# of Law Schools
201
# of 1Ls
44,518
+/- from previous yr
-8.58%
# of total law students
139,262
+/- from previous yr
-4.80%
2011 – 2012
201
48,697
-7.22%
146,288
-0.84%
2010 – 2011
200
52,488
1.63%
147,525
1.57%
2009 – 2010
200
51,646
4.52%
145,239
1.62%
2008 – 2009
200
49,414
0.68%
142,922
0.85%
2007 – 2008
198
49,082
0.30%
141,719
0.49%
2006 – 2007
195
48,937
1.67%
141,031
0.52%
2005 – 2006
191
48,132
-0.22%
140,298
-0.06%
2004 – 2005
188
48,239
-1.29%
140,376
1.96%
2003 – 2004
187
48,867
0.90%
137,676
3.61%
2002 – 2003
186
48,433
7.46%
132,885
4.13%
2001 – 2002
184
45,070
3.57%
127,610
1.95%
2000 – 2001
183
43,518
0.85%
125,173
-0.01%
1999 – 2000
182
43,152
0.81%
125,184
-0.35%

According to the Wall Street Journal, “[m]embers of the law-school class of 2011 had little better than a 50-50 shot at landing a job as a lawyer within nine months of receiving their degree, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis last year. At the same time, some law graduates are saddled with as much as $150,000 in student-loan debt, in part because tuition is rising faster than the rate of inflation.”  So, even though there is a bonafide need for legal services, you have this dichotomy of Big Law with high overhead not wanting to lower their costs of services and Legal Services that can only assist those at or below poverty.  You have a huge gap in between those camps for those who need access to justice.

However, who is to fill it?  We have all these attorneys being pushed out into the big bad world, but with $150,000 in student loan debt (I actually topped out at $168,000 thinking private schools were what were going to propel me into a position to pay for it- that’s a whole different story of self-stupidity), people are scared.  Scared to take the leap.  Not scared to provide the help though.  Actually, I would say a good number of us want to serve this population, and serve them well.

And many are being “forced” to whether they want to or not.  No jobs means more and more new graduates are going solo. Creating even more competition for those struggling to offer reasonable rates, flat fees, and/or sliding scale fees, but also trying to pay off $168,000 in student loan debt, vehicle if they live in rural areas with no public transportation, housing, daycare, and whatever else they have on their plate.

A mentor of mine recently shut down her practice.  She had been the sole manager of it for 7 or so years.  And the competition of all the new solos was one of the factors in her decision to close down and join another practice.  According to my State Bar’s data, in her county there is 1 attorney for every 944 residents.  In my own, there is 1 attorney for every 423 residents.  It certainly made me think long and hard when she announced her office closing and comparing the data.

This brings us full circle to innovation.  How can we think differently, work differently, use technology differently, to provide competent reasonably priced legal services to those that need them, while keeping overhead low and paying off a never-ending pile of debt.  I think we can.  That is not to say that it is going to be an easy task.  And sacrifices will be made.  Those who are paving the way speak openly of the struggles they encounter here.  Nevertheless, this is the year I am going to try and do my part- research, learn, prepare, so I can try and help those who need it, hopefully helping and feeding my own children while I’m at it.

Cheers!

NMH

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