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Bodensteiner: Too many lawyers? The problem may be one of ‘allocation’

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ivan Bodensteiner DeanSince I am currently serving as the interim dean of the Valparaiso University Law School, you may discount everything I say about this topic because you assume law schools have a vested interest in arguing against the generally accepted wisdom that there are, in fact, too many lawyers in the United States. This generally accepted wisdom may be accurate, but I think we should at least test it a bit.

Whether there are too many lawyers in this country depends on what we expect from our system of “justice.” We recently completed a week of orientation for more than 200 students who began their first year of law school Aug. 19. As part of the orientation, we talked to them about what it means to be a lawyer, including the importance of representing individuals whose cause is not popular and representing individuals who lack the resources to pay for representation.

Let’s assume for the moment that the legal profession is serious about the lofty principles it promotes, such as “equal justice” and “justice for all,” then ask whether we have enough lawyers to achieve those goals. No doubt the recent dip in the economy has made it difficult for many lawyers to succeed financially. But, is that because we have too many lawyers? Or, is it because we tolerate a system of “justice” that requires people to pay to participate equally? Maybe we have the proper number of lawyers, or even too few, but we do not allocate them effectively.

As a general rule, in our society your resources determine your access to goods and services. Should that rule prevail when the “good” or “service” is access to justice? If not, then we as part of the key profession need to improve the system. Further, I believe we need to improve access to the profession itself because the system loses credibility when the key players do not reflect the demographics of society. Many have commented on the recently concluded Trayvon Martin trial. I have heard and read the comments of well-informed lawyers, black and white, suggesting that the jury verdict was proper in light of Florida law and the evidence presented at trial.

Of course, not all lawyers agree, but let’s assume for the moment that the assessment stated above is accurate – that is, a reasonable, unbiased jury could properly acquit the accused. Why, then, is the verdict so controversial, particularly among African-Americans? At least to some extent, I believe, the outrage and criticism can be traced to a general distrust of the criminal justice system, at least among those who are not adequately represented in the system. Perception is important, maybe even more important than reality. Would the perception be different if there had been several black jurors on the jury that acquitted the accused, or if there had been more black players in the system?

When I think about our criminal justice system, I am always reminded of Justice William Brennan’s dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), the case that rejected an equal protection challenge to a capital sentence in Georgia. In challenging the implementation of the death penalty in Georgia, McClesky relied on the “Baldus study” showing a racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia. Justice Brennan stated:

“At some point in this case, Warren McCleskey doubtless asked his lawyer whether a jury was likely to sentence him to die. A candid reply to this question would have been disturbing. First, counsel would have to tell McCleskey that few of the details of the crime or of McCleskey’s past criminal conduct were more important than the fact that his victim was white. Furthermore, counsel would feel bound to tell McCleskey that defendants charged with killing white victims in Georgia are 4.3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants charged with killing blacks. . . . Finally, the assessment would not be complete without the information that cases involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other racial combination of defendant and victim. The story could be told in a variety of ways, but McCleskey could not fail to grasp its essential narrative line: there was a significant chance that race would play a prominent role in determining if he lived or died.” (citations omitted)

The Urban Institute recently published the results of a study by John K. Roman titled “Race, Justifiable Homicide, and Stand Your Ground Laws: Analysis of FBI Supplementary Homicide Report Data.” It states that “the rate of justifiable homicides is almost six times higher in case[s] with attributes that match the Martin case. Racial disparities are much larger, as white-on-black homicides have justifiable findings 33 percentage points more often than black-on-white homicides. Stand your Ground laws appear to exacerbate those differences, as cases overall are significantly more likely to be ruled justified in SYG states than in non-SYG states . . . .” Roman indicates that the study has limitations, but these findings are disturbing.

The American Bar Association has noted that there are not enough racial minorities in the profession. Former Justice Randall Shepherd recognized that years ago when he started the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity program, commonly knows as ICLEO. We will increase the number of racial minorities in the profession only by increasing their enrollment in law schools. A reduction in enrollment in law schools because there are too many lawyers will tend to lock in, at least for a period of time, the disproportionately low number of racial minorities in the profession. As I welcomed our incoming class of students during orientation, I was particularly pleased by the fact that more than 45 percent of them were from a group referred to as “underrepresented minorities.”

The burden of eliminating racial disparities in our criminal justice system cannot be placed on black attorneys. It is our problem. But, racial equality may be given a higher priority when racial minorities are better represented in the legal profession. If we change the job description of the profession to include universal access to legal representation, we may conclude we do not have too many lawyers.•

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Ivan Bodensteiner, a nationally recognized authority on constitutional law and civil rights, is the interim dean at Valparaiso University Law School. He has served as interim dean since March 2013.

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  1. It really doesn't matter what the law IS, if law enforcement refuses to take reports (or take them seriously), if courts refuse to allow unrepresented parties to speak (especially in Small Claims, which is supposedly "informal"). It doesn't matter what the law IS, if constituents are unable to make effective contact or receive any meaningful response from their representatives. Two of our pets were unnecessarily killed; court records reflect that I "abandoned" them. Not so; when I was denied one of them (and my possessions, which by court order I was supposed to be able to remove), I went directly to the court. And earlier, when I tried to have the DV PO extended (it expired while the subject was on probation for violating it), the court denied any extension. The result? Same problems, less than eight hours after expiration. Ironic that the county sheriff was charged (and later pleaded to) with intimidation, but none of his officers seemed interested or capable of taking such a report from a private citizen. When I learned from one officer what I needed to do, I forwarded audio and transcript of one occurrence and my call to law enforcement (before the statute of limitations expired) to the prosecutor's office. I didn't even receive an acknowledgement. Earlier, I'd gone in to the prosecutor's office and been told that the officer's (written) report didn't match what I said occurred. Since I had the audio, I can only say that I have very little faith in Indiana government or law enforcement.

  2. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  3. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  4. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  5. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

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