This is the next post in my “mid-year check in” as to the state of the legal profession halfway through 2017. My last article provided a quick overview of topics which this series will be addressing. I also stressed the need for attorneys, who understand that their practice is a business, to pay attention to my coming articles. Earlier this year I discussed why a number of law firms will fail in the very near future. The bottom line is that things have not gotten better six months into the year. In this post I’m going to look at an important issue which, while it is not my intention of doing so, may ruffle quite a few feathers. That issue is whether recent actions of the ABA are hurting the legal profession. My answer to that question is yes. I’ll start by setting some background and then talk about how recent actions of the American Bar Association are only going to make it harder for attorneys to earn a living. Obviously this article is entirely my own opinion, but at the end of the day I don’t think recent developments are good for the profession.
This article is going to look at three things. First, I’ll dive into the extent to which there is an oversupply of attorneys, how that surplus is continuing to grow, and what this means for the profession. Second, I’ll look at the fact that the ABA recently provided provisional accreditation to a new law school and my issues with their having done so. Third, I’ll dive into why it is inconsistent with the American Bar Association’s stated mission for them to be accrediting new law schools at this time. Let’s get to it.
I discussed the oversupply of attorneys earlier this year and I won’t re-hash that discussion. I will, however, throw out a lot of math (an attorney’s favorite thing) so be patient. The math shows that the oversupply of lawyers is getting worse. In December of 2006 the “legal services sector” employed 1,161,400 people1. At the time there were 1,116,967 attorneys in the United States2. This means that the profession employed 44,433 more people than there were attorneys. By December of 2016, however, that situation changed. By December of ’16 the profession had lost a significant number of jobs and only employed 1,126,100 people3. Also, in December of ’16 there were 1,315,561 lawyers4. So from ’06 to ’16 the profession went from employing 44,433 more people than there were in the attorney population to employing 189,461 fewer people than there were lawyers. We clearly have a glut of attorneys and that surplus is expanding. In the first six months of 2017 the profession has, for a change, added roughly 4,700 jobs5. The problem, however, is that the profession is expected to add roughly 20,400 attorneys in 20176.This means that the surplus of attorneys, when compared to the number of legal service sector jobs, is growing and not shrinking.
It’s important to understand how the increasing oversupply of attorney labor impacts your ability to run a practice. As a legal professional you’re trained in the law. So it’s important to understand that those two pesky laws, called “supply” and “demand,” will never be repealed. The increasing attorney surplus not only impacts the ability of one to get a job at a firm, it also greatly impacts what a firm can charge. As the situation worsens the rates, which a practitioner can charge, will go down. The fact that the legal profession added 4,700 jobs so far in 2017 means that we could have added no more than 4,700 attorneys just to keep wages and rates where they are today. It’s simple math; if we add 100 lawyers then we need 100 more law jobs. Likewise, if we take 100 law jobs out of the system then we need 100 fewer attorneys to stay at current levels. Given that attorneys are increasingly struggling, and many can’t even pay their student loans, we need to be decreasing the number of law schools in the United States and not increasing them. That gets to my next point.
The ABA recently provided provisional accreditation to the University of North Texas Dallas College of Law7. This school is pursuing a mission of making law school highly affordable. Reports state that their tuition is as low as $15,000 per year. This comes after years of declining enrollment in U.S. law schools. So, in other words and in my opinion, it appears that the ABA is realizing that law school attendance is on the decline and to keep the number of incoming students up, at least one cheaper school is receiving provisional accreditation. My big problem with this is that such an approach fails to recognize that there are already far too many law schools in the U.S. and supply and demand would dictate that we should be closing and consolidating schools, rapidly, as opposed to opening another one. Now I’ve seen quite a few articles stating that a low cost law school can increase the number of attorneys who will go into some type of public service. While I know that this sounds cynical, I find it curious that there wasn’t a big push to open “affordable schools” when we were creating a large number of law schools from 1990-2008. This push into affordable legal education is coming after enrollment has dropped. Given that the ABA is charged with law school accreditation, my opinion is that members of the profession should be saying “who’s making sure we don’t have too many schools?” Again, we currently have way too many.
One of the American Bar Association’s stated purposes is to “Provide benefits, programs and services which promote members’ professional growth and quality of life.” I have to ask if opening a new law school, at a time where the profession is not healthy and should be shuttering institutions, meets that goal. For a solo practitioner, who is saddled with student loans and seeing work dry up, I think it’s safe to say that increasing their competition is not going to increase their quality of life.
One last thought I have is that opening a cheap law school is not necessary to increase access to justice. The market will correct these issues. As more attorneys continue to struggle then a higher number of firms will reduce rates. A higher number of attorneys will start up a solo practice and take pro bono cases as a way of “getting their name out there” and more attorneys will engage in public service programs as a way of getting their feet wet. In other words, many of these issues are going to take care of themselves due to the oversupply of attorneys. The opening of new, low cost, law schools, is very bad for the profession in my opinion.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the opinions I’ve just shared. Please chime in through the comment form below.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- See reference number 2.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- See reference 2