According to the ABA, only 56 percent of nearly 46,000 law school graduates had a job in 2012 requiring bar passage nine months after graduation. And less than 1 in 5 of the legal problems experienced by low-income people are addressed by a private attorney or a legal aid lawyer.
The president of the ABA told the House of Delegates that “‘There are so many examples of real, monumental life issues that could be alleviated with the help of a lawyer…And there is a pool of newly minted lawyers waiting for the chance to help.’”
This is the same problem or challenge that faced the legal profession in 1965 when I became a member. Bar leaders were wringing their hands, then, saying "oh my, oh my, what should we do?" One would think that the brilliance of lawyers, both before and since, could have found a solution to this challenge posed by the laws of economics, supply and demand. Well, the answer is they have.
The ABA president suggested that we should look at programs on the national, state and local levels, citing as examples New York’s legal incubator program aimed at helping new practitioners and South Dakota’s rural practice project, which provides financial incentives to lawyers willing to practice in rural areas. These are not new; examples exist from Coast to Coast. And no new regulations and no involuntary service is required to face and meet the challenges.
But there is no political will to embrace them and expand these options. Perhaps the established Bar is fearful of the results and the impact on the economics of those who have "made it."
In response to my recent question, one of our readers responded by saying “… Listen to them (clients), acknowledge what they have said (“active listening”), make sure you understand their concern/pain, and address it (their concern) effectively (competent representation per the rules of professional conduct)…” Sounds like a formula for success.
Linda Popky, marketing consultant of Leverage2Market, writes her Top of Mind piece this week about a serious marketing blunder, as follows:
“…. (T)he local Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) store featured a great buy on a tabletop propane heater….There was only one problem. A propane heater naturally requires propane to work. And even though OSH carries small portable propane tanks, they didn’t have the ones in the proper configuration to fit the heater. Whoops.
“So making this (purchase) work required an additional trip to … Home Depot (to get the correct propane tank) … Driving your customers to visit your competition to complete their product experience with you (is) not the best way to keep the flames of loyalty burning bright.”
As Linda suggests, make it easy to do business with you, not hard. Examples include answering phone calls quickly (as on the first ring) and messages returned promptly (no later than the next day. Being astute in The Business of Law® will create loyal clients.
In the June issue of the ABA Journal, ABA President Laura Bellows talked about the gender pay inequity in the legal profession, comparing today with 50 years ago when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act. The difference is 77 cents now vs. 59 cents then. And even today, Ms. Bellows says “(f)emale equity partners in the 200 largest firms … earn 89% of the compensation of their male peers. Not long ago, one of my clients experienced that very same bias, causing her to leave the large firm and open her own shop. Immediately, her income doubled.
But the President’s Message contained a new perspective for me. She said that unequal pay is a family issue, not just a gender issue, that affects families and retirement capabilities of husband/wife, father/mother and the well-being of everyone in the family. And the competition among colleagues is not of male and female, but of lawyer and lawyer. Gender is no longer a fair differentiation within the firm contest.
I’m becoming more sensitive to this issue as I plan for our LawBiz® Practice Management Institute scheduled for April 4th and 5th, 2014, in Santa Monica, CA. Join me and my co-anchor, Rebecca Torrey, an equity partner and member of the Executive Committee of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, as we focus on management challenges faced by women lawyers in today’s profession.
While doom-sayers proclaim that the legal profession’s problem is too many lawyers, practical experience often tells a different story. A friend recently shared this story with me:
“When we needed an immigration attorney, only one returned our calls of enquiry from the several my husband called locally, (she got our business) and when we were looking for a lawyer for wills and other family matters recently, only one was interested in the bread and butter stuff we’re looking for help with. Couple this with the ‘non-lawyer’ who dealt with our house sale (very efficiently) in the UK, as consumers we see the ‘lawyer’ crisis differently!”
There may be an oversupply of lawyers for jobs at Biglaw (the high paying positions too many law school graduates still want), but the demand (the bread-and-butter business with the Main Street folks who can’t pay $1,000 an hour legal fees) is still there.
My friend’s experience suggests this simple solution for any lawyer worried about having enough business: pick up the phone! The teachings of my father many years ago come to mind. When the phone rings, and you respond, you will be hired. But, if you don’t respond, you won’t be hired. This is similar to the adage that if you don’t swing the bat, you can’t hit the ball.
Marketing efforts are designed to make people aware of you and to encourage them to call. But all the effective marketing in the world won’t make up for calls missed or not promptly returned. Service is fundamental. If clients want you, it’s because of the quality service you can and should provide. If you’re there right from the start it shows what you will do going forward.
I wrote recently about the great chasm between lawyer supply and demand for legal services. I suggested that this is an age-old problem only because many lawyers are courting a very small market segment, the large companies of the world. The bulk of the consuming public has less ability to pay but still great need. And the Bar hasn’t yet figured out how to incentivize lawyers to serve this need.
But perhaps the real issue is not so much the supply, but rather the lack of service provided by lawyers. The following several instances were reported to me from one who had repeated unpleasant interactions with lawyers. It’s a shame that she had more than one such experience, but most people can identify with what happened to her.
"When we needed an immigration attorney," she says, "only one returned our calls of inquiry from the several my husband called locally. When we were looking for a lawyer for wills and other family matters recently, only one was interested in the bread and butter stuff we needed addressed." She continues by making the further observation, "Instead of using a lawyer, we used a ‘non-lawyer’ for our house sale; she was very efficient." She concludes that "… as consumers, we see the ‘lawyer’ crisis differently!."
Lawyers get a bad rap deservedly in too many instances!
Years ago, I wrote that new lawyers preferred to work for law firms that invested in their training so that they could become better lawyers. Nah, the response was: They want the money. I responded that when you get $100,000 plus as a newly minted lawyer, the money is good, but secondary. And, of course, today just having a job is sufficient. We won’t even talk about the money, even for the top graduates.
A USA Today Snapshot tells us that 61% of those asked prefer managers who invest in the professional development … improved skills is the ladder to improvement, success and higher status in the firm.
My own daughter, in a different field, accepted a position with an organization offering $10,000 less to start. Why? Because of the prestige and teaching skills of that operation. Today, she is at the top of her field as a result. Attitudes haven’t changed that much among today’s young.
The Wall Street Journal carried a column on November 11, 2013, “Big Law Mergers Questioned," that contained two blinding glimpses of the obvious – one explicit, one implicit. The explicit one was straightforward, yet seemed to elude the understanding of the writer: that in pursuing mergers to create ever-bigger organizations, law firms are simply following the paths of their clients. We saw this in the 1930s and 1940s and later when unions became larger in order to do battle with management. Today law firms are combining in order to be more respected, better received, and perceived as players in the corporate world. Small law firms supposedly can’t play in the same ballpark as a very large customer (corporate America).
Does merging law firms to make them bigger actually make them better? The answer is “yes” only when the parties have thought through what they want to accomplish and what synergies exist between them. One has to be old enough to recall that corporate America once thought that “bigger was better” when viewing itself. Then these conglomerates seemed to collapse of their own weight. The phrase, “getting back to core competencies,” became the watchword and large enterprises began breaking up into smaller units.
That’s where we get the second “blinding glimpse” – the smallest unit in a law firm is the lawyer. And corporate client after corporate client in the Journal article said that the individual lawyer is most important to them. “We hire lawyers, not law firms,” the GC of Hewlett Packard said flatly. There is some disagreement over this assertion.
Theoretically teams institutionalize the work done for a given client as they involve other firm lawyers in the delivery of legal services, even if one lawyer remains the client’s primary contact. But in a megafirm of thousands of lawyers, team members are interchangeable.
When you have a problem with your car, do you contact GM or Toyota headquarters, or the friendly mechanic at your neighborhood garage? Even neighborhood garages grow, but their size is infinitesimal compared to GM or Toyota. There is a limit to "bigger is better" beyond which "core competencies" begin to falter. Firms are kidding themselves if they think bigger by itself makes them better. And clients, often wanting to be close to the center of the law firm, will still engage a smaller, but yet large (regional) law firm.
For the 2013 academic year, law school admissions were headed for a 30-year low, a decline driven by student worries about rising tuition, debt load and unemployment after graduation. Potential law students increasingly understand that today it is a fool’s gamble to spend many thousands of dollars in the hope of getting a well-paying job at the end of three years, and as they pursue other careers the legal profession will shrink.
Demographics present another way to reduce the supply of lawyers. There are more than 1.2 million lawyers in the United States, at least half of them sole practitioners and some 400,000 poised to retire by the year 2020. To suggest that this latter group should be treated differently from any other group in the organized bar would create allegations of ageism and prohibited discrimination. However, a metric that is applicable to all lawyers, such as “competence in professional skills,” is safer ground. Of course, if this metric also achieves the basic goal of reducing the number of lawyers, by implying that older lawyers are less competent to serve clients, so much the better.
The problem with this metric is that it is never applied uniformly. If we look at new lawyers, those who have been admitted to practice for three years or less, there will undoubtedly be many who are not “competent,” despite the fact that they have passed the bar exam. What is the competence metric for “older” lawyers? Do they have to pass another bar exam? If yes why should age be the factor that determines whether they have to take a new examination? If not, what might it be? There is no examination at anywhere in the time spectrum of a lawyer’s career that requires such an examination.
It is the rare lawyer who has not thought at some point, “My opponent is not very good.” Often this is another way of saying, “My opponent doesn’t seem very competent.” This is impressionistic only, but to be valid it must be applied throughout the entire career life cycle.
It is not accurate to automatically assume that older lawyers are more careless, have too many distractions and make too many errors leading to discipline. Young lawyers are closer to the teaching of the rules of professional conduct than are the older lawyers. But, that does not assure that all younger lawyers are competent to offer the advice they’re asked for … and, with MCLE, older lawyers generally keep their skills up. Regardless of lawyers’ ages, the majority of the complaints against the profession relate to careless dealings with clients… Age is not a determining factor in such a scenario.
Should the merger take place between Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe and Pillbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, there will be a reordering of the top U.S. law firms. The BCS rankings reorder every week after the Saturday college football results are known. So, too, do the BigLaw rankings change every time there is a major merger.
Will this merger succeed where others have failed? Quite possibly. The positives are that both are West Coast based. That means their cultures are more closely aligned than if they had routes on opposite parts of the country. And, I suspect that the top management of both firms, each of which are very capable, understand that integration of the two firms is essential to their success … and thus more likely to pay attention to this process. And, from a marketing perspective, the new firm will have a dominant position in Silicon Valley, a major source of future revenue.
But there are still risks. Power struggles and cultural clashes are not unknown for combining large organizations. Aligning their compensation systems, always a key element, may or may not present a hurdle. Even if they succeed, there are likely to be some break-offs or departures of significance. Despite “advanced merger talks,” the deal is not done until done … Much can happen between now and then.