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Chinn: The Future of the Profession, Part 1

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iba-chinn-scottOctober 15, 2012 was a day 423 lawyers will remember for the rest of their lives. That’s because it was the day they were sworn into the Indiana bar. I was pleased to be there too on behalf of the Indianapolis Bar Association.

If you generally like lawyers and admire the contributions that most of them make toward creating a civil society, then it is hard not to feel happy for these (mostly) young people who stood before the Chief Justice Dickson and a stunning array of his fellow judicial officers. They looked great as they wore the uniform of the profession and also wore expressions that concealed what I suspect was elation and nervous excitement about beginning their careers. Their family members beamed with pride and joy, no doubt adhering to a self-imposed moratorium on lawyer jokes.

And there is every reason to think that these new members of the bar will have successful careers. But at the risk being labeled a killjoy, I must admit that as I listened to the words of wisdom and congratulations from the judges and lawyers, I was also concerned about their job prospects. How many of these new admittees have law jobs? How many have the law jobs they went to law school to garner? How many have education-related debt that will make it tough to make ends meet? A few years from now, how will the metrics of the economy and the state of the profession have evolved to shape the opportunities and contribute to the well being of these lawyers?

As I’ve mentioned in this column before, the IndyBar is working on a set or programs to assist lawyers, including new lawyers, who are looking for jobs or feel underemployed. But we should also recognize that the supply of new lawyers probably exceeds the demand for quality law jobs – jobs that afford adequate service of student debt loads and a quality of life, let alone personal fulfillment. One great question of the times is whether this condition will persist. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I think we should assume it will. Our economy simply will demand fewer lawyers in the future – at least, fewer lawyers whose salary requirements (owing in substantial part to education costs) in turn require fees that price many consumers out of the market for legal services. Ironically, there likely won’t be less demand for legal services; there will be less demand for legal services provided by lawyers. Witness the success of LegalZoom and other low cost substitutes for traditional legal services.

Let me interject here that I do not mean to purvey gloom and doom. I remain bullish that lawyers will continue to be central to protecting the rights and interests Americans hold dearly and will promote the non-violent dispute resolution that is the hallmark of the American democracy. But getting a good law job and having a stable legal career just is and will be more difficult.

So, even as we address the current dilemma of trying to match lawyers with quality opportunities to work in our professions, we must also focus attention on the underlying demographics of the profession. Of course, that conversation is underway in law schools, journals, and among economists. But I don’t think we should be content to let it play out on a macroeconomic level. Rather, I think we should assess these conditions in our own community, draw some conclusions, and determine whether the practicing bar can make a difference. Should law schools be taking fewer students? How do we permit more students to leave school with less debt? And what do we do to address the apparent problem that law school applications from minority candidates are falling out of proportion to a decline in law school applications overall?

I know many others too think we ought to be weighing in on the number crunching and innovation required to change the status quo. I look forward to the IndyBar playing a role in that conversation.•

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