Why you should care

No joke: There’s a glut of lawyers, and a shortage of lawyers. It’s a mismatch that endangers the rule of law, and cries out for a bold solution.

Pity the lawyers. No, seriously, pity the lawyers. And the rest of us, too.

Perhaps you already know that the Big Law market is lousier than ever, thanks to continuing fallout from the recession. Behemoth firms have foundered. Others have cut back on hires or – gasp! —resorted to layoffs.

But the real crisis looms quieter, far from the shiny high-rises where people count their days in six-minute increments. There may still be a lawyer glut at the white-shoe law firms. But there’s a shortage almost everywhere else, from government agencies to legal aid clinics to state courthouses. There were never enough public interest lawyers, but in recent years, hundreds if not thousands of positions have been eliminated. In many rural counties, it’s hard to find a lawyer to try a case. Hard to find a Spanish-speaking one, too.

There may be a lawyer glut at the white-shoe law firms. But there’s a shortage everywhere from government agencies to aid clinics to state courthouses.

Then there’s the shortage of G-men and women in the public sector, the attorneys who are supposed to ferret out corporate malfeasance and white-collar wrongdoing. Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Securities & Exchange Commission can’t command a decent budget, despite getting its funding from banks, not the government.

And did you hear what they started calling unpaid interns at the Department of Justice last year? ”Special Assistant US Attorney.”

Don’t forget the state courts, the judges who hear cases and the court appointed lawyers, which have been under pressure from their legislatures to get lean — “real lean,” as Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson put it in his State of the Judiciary address this month. (“I am happy to report that we finally have a full-time employee to answer the phones and greet people in our main office,” he said.)

The sequester has left a mark on the justice system. Attorney General Eric Holder this week announced an end to the three-year hiring freeze at the Department of Justice, during which some 4,000 positions went unfilled, and the Department started hiring seasoned attorneys for unpaid positions. But it’s by no means clear the DOJ will bring paid attorney staffing back up to pre-sequester levels.

Funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which supports legal aid around the country, has been restored to pre-sequester levels, but it remains low. Over the past two years, more than 1,000 positions have been eliminated from LSC-funded organizations, with some offices letting go as many as 20 percent of their staffs, says spokesperson Carl Rauscher. At the same time, demand for legal aid has shot up along with poverty rates.

“Funding right now is the second-lowest ever in inflation-adjusted dollars, even though the number of people who qualify for our services is at an all-time high,” says Rauscher.

Eric standing at podium speaking into microphone with people blurred in the foreground

Attorney General Eric Holder

Source Getty

And still, students continue to pour out of law schools grasping for work. Nearly 47,000 people graduated from law school in 2012, and only about 22,000 full-time law jobs awaited them. Would-be lawyers have taken note. The number of first year law students plummeted this year to 39,675, its lowest level in almost 40 years.

The issue doesn’t just affect recent graduates or the underserved clients. It’s a rule of law problem.

No doubt some vast and needful correction is taking place at the upper end of the legal market, the Big Law firms that cater to corporations. It never made sense to pay neophyte juris doctors $160K to review documents all day, and we don’t feel especially sorry for the graduates, firms or law schools who made bank from that soulless system.

But not every lawyer-in-training was eyeing a big-bucks corporate job in the first place. Many of them went to law school because they cared about justice, not money.

Now they can’t find jobs, even poor-paying jobs, in the legal markets that need them most. Their talents are going unused at the very time they’re most needed. “There’s an enormous issue with many students willing to do public service work despite the lower pay, and organizations desperately needing them, but no funding to hire them,” an assistant dean at a top-five law school says.

This is a fundamental mismatch. It doesn’t affect just the new graduates or the clients that go unserved, but all of us. It’s even a rule of law issue, according to Pepperdine Law Dean Deannell Reece Tacha:

When the great majority of the individuals and small businesses of the nation no longer can, or believe they no longer can, get a lawyer, be represented effectively, go to court, settle their disputes in a fair and impartial way, and be treated like every other citizen, we have, quite simply, lost the guilding principle of our republic – equal justice under the law.

The market isn’t going to correct this justice gap all by itself. While a smattering of fellowships encourage recent grads to go into public service or public interest law, we need something much larger scale: a public law corps. It would match recent law school graduates with long-term, paid internships in government agencies, at public defenders, or at legal aid offices. Like medical internships, the public law corps would provide training to recent graduates and help for underserved populations or the public-at-large. Law corps jobs would also pay a decent salary, if not an extravagant one.

Law School graduating from college, all wearing cap and gown outdoors with sign that says LAW

Source Corbis

It’s a neat idea, we think, and pretty simple. Take tens of thousands of highly-skilled folks who can’t find a job, and put them to work doing things that need to be done: defending the indigent, securing disability benefits for veterans, investigating white-collar crime, protecting tenants from wrongful eviction or landlords from deadbeat tenants. After all, a legal mind is a terrible thing to waste, at least in a time of lawyer shortages.

All this would require public funding, for sure – and in this time of government cutbacks, it would be a hard sell, budget wise. We’re not exactly living in a WPA-friendly, New Deal-era. But we’re pretty sure of one thing: In the long-term, it’d be cheaper than the collapse of the rule of law.

Contact Pooja Bhatia: pooja@ozy.com

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