Moving forward

Issue July 2012 By Richard P. Campbell

The law economy, dashed hopes for newly admitted lawyers, and the law school paradigm

I am the apostle of the obvious when I bark about the horrible state of affairs in the law economy in the commonwealth, where annually 2,500 newly minted lawyers compete for approximately 720 identifiable, paying jobs. Those new lawyers come to the commonwealth from nine law schools resident in the state1 and another seven law schools resident in the contiguous New England states.2 The math is depressing for those new lawyers: 16 law schools churn out more than 1,500 graduates who will likely be unemployed and may never have satisfactory careers as full time practicing lawyers earning a decent living. An exclamation point was added to this story recently by a Boston College Law School job board posting. The posting advertised a full-time associate position as a small Boston law firm, paying $10,000 per year (i.e., less than the minimum wage).

A recent article published by the ABA Journal quoted National Association for Law Placement, Inc. Executive Director James G. Leipold as characterizing the law economy for new lawyers as "brutal" and "arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years."

The same ABA article attributed to Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, the statement that the percentage of new graduates with full-time law jobs was at best 50 percent, when law school-funded, part-time and temporary law jobs were not counted. McEntee said, "Until we know the percentage of full-time, bar passage-required jobs, it's hard to know how bad the situation really is."

Again, as reported by the ABA Journal, NALP found a "dramatic erosion of private practice jobs" with fewer than half of new law graduates (49.5 percent) taking jobs in private practice. Apparently, the percentage of new lawyers entering private practice registered below 50 percent only once in the 38 years that NALP has tracked placement data for law school graduates.

Few (if any) of the individuals or groups studying this market phenomenon look at the corollary economic impact on practicing lawyers and the resultant quality of legal service provided to clients and the courts. It seems axiomatic, however, that infusion of new lawyers into a distressed legal economy can only bring economic hardship to established lawyers and diminished service to clients.

What to do? The Massachusetts Bar Association decided to evaluate this problem through its Task Force on Law, The Economy, and Underemployment.  Led by Co-chairs Eric Parker and Radha Natarajan, the task force issued its report entitled, "Beginning The Conversation," on May 17, 2012. The association's House of Delegates accepted it at its meeting at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The Task Force report has since been widely distributed across the nation and the ABA is now following the MBA's lead by establishing its own task force to study and report on this problem from a national perspective.

More than 100 years ago, the founders of the Massachusetts Bar Association (including such luminaries as Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) set as a core mission of the Association "to police the profession and reform the law.3" In his opening address, Richard Olney, the first MBA President, observed that "the most eminent lawyer may often fail to make himself felt.4" Our job, then, is in part to police the profession and to make ourselves felt.

That is exactly what we intend to do.

At the next House of Delegates meeting in September 2012, the following resolutions from the task force will be presented in an effort to move our profession forward:

Establishing a permanent standing committee (i.e. "Legal Education and Employment Committee") charged with monitoring trends in legal education and obstacles to employment in Massachusetts and developing solutions and recommendations relevant thereto.
Designating a formal liaison between the MBA and the deans of the nine existing Massachusetts law schools charged with enhancing communications between the MBA and the local law schools and fostering a greater understanding of their mutual challenges, efforts and best interests.
Encouraging the ABA to include in its current questionnaire to law schools a question asking all graduates employed in the legal field to rank how well their law school prepared them for the practice of law.
The development and bench-testing of a curriculum and the administration of a formal "Legal Residency Program", overseen by the MBA in conjunction with participating beta law firms, the Board of Bar Overseers, and the Supreme Judicial Court.
The creation of an annual survey to be distributed to the nine Massachusetts law schools, seeking information specific to Massachusetts legal employment data and other relevant statistics.
The preparation of a questionnaire designed to gauge employment metrics, to be added to the existing Board of Bar Overseers license application/renewal questionnaire sent annually to lawyers admitted to practice in the Commonwealth.
A recommendation to the Board of Bar Examiners and the Supreme Judicial Court that the bar passage rate in Massachusetts be calibrated with the average national bar passage rate.
A recommendation to the SJC that Massachusetts limits reciprocity to those states that provide rules of reciprocity substantially similar to those of Massachusetts.

The problems produced by a saturated bar are manifold and manifest. And these problems will not disappear through wishful thinking. The task force has shown us some pathways to follow. Let's get going and attack them.

1Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Suffolk, New England, Western New England, Massachusetts School of Law, UMASS, and Harvard.

2Vermont, University of New Hampshire, University of Maine, UCONN, Roger Williams, Quinnipiac, Yale.

3R.J. Brink, Fiat Justitia: A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association 1910 -1985, at 1.

4 Id.