Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book review - The Lawyer Bubble: A profession in crisis

Too many lawyers. Too few jobs. Too much debt. Too much greed.

That, according to Steven J. Harper, just about sums up the problems in the legal profession these days. There is a glut of attorneys out there who can't find jobs. They are carrying way too much debt to even consider paying back anytime soon. And all the while the American Bar Association hands out accreditation to new law schools left and right.

In his new book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis, Mr. Harper takes a hard look at the problems in the profession today and details how BigLaw has screwed the pooch, how law schools are scamming students and how prospective lawyers fall over the cliff just like lemmings.

I learned an awful lot about law school and BigLaw culture that I never knew anything about thanks to Mr. Harper. I didn't know I was supposed to pour over the U.S. News & World Report rankings to determine where I went to school. I didn't realize my dream was to work in a mega law firm doing mundane tasks for years on end while making money hand over fist. I had no idea that law schools were so deceptive in their marketing practices.

Ignorance was bliss.

I went to South Texas College of Law's night program for second career lawyers. My choices were South Texas and the University of Houston. My decision was made when I found out that UH's part-time program didn't start until the spring while South Texas kicked things off in the fall. I applied to one law school and was accepted. To this day I couldn't tell you where either South Texas or UH sit in the U.S. News rankings. I don't care. If you've ever spent time practicing down here you know that both schools prepare students for the real world.

Since I went into law school to become a criminal defense lawyer I never knew anything about the wet dreams that students have over working for BigLaw. I never knew anything about the ways in which law schools manipulate employment data to convince students to plunk down large sums of cash to attend their school. To this day I couldn't tell you how many South Texas graduates have long-term jobs requiring legal degrees. I graduated in May, took the bar in July, got my results in November and hung out my shingle in January.

But, back to Mr. Harper's book. In the first part of The Lawyer Bubble, he shows us how BigLaw fouled the waters for everyone and how the greed at the top of the pyramid has created such turmoil for those at the bottom. It started when someone made the decision that BigLaw was more of a business venture than a profession. When the chase for profit became more important that providing service for the client, the world of BigLaw came crashing down. He also shows us how the same mistakes were made again and again and again...

He paints a bleak picture of life as a junior associate. There are fewer openings for equity partners. The partnership track has been extended. The attrition rate in BigLaw approaches 80% after five years. Big firms have spent the past decades increasing their "leverage" - the number of associates per each equity partner. That means more mundane tasks and fewer opportunities to get that corner office.

In the second part of his book, Mr. Harper takes a hard look at the role law schools have played in creating the mess we find ourselves in. There are too many law schools accepting too many new students without enough demand for lawyers out in the real world. The law schools benefit from federally-guaranteed student loans that can't be discharged in bankruptcy. The law schools keep hiking up their tuition knowing there's "free" money out there to pay the bills. Law schools, particularly those affiliated with a university, have become profit centers and are operated as such.

Instead of preparing students for what being a lawyer really means, the law school curriculum is placed in the hands of academics who are more interested in pursuing their research on esoteric topics while being forced to teach a class or two a semester. The end result are new lawyers who don't know how to write a brief nor where to file it. In ringing up debts that run into six figures, prospective lawyers should at least be given a map so they can find the courthouse.

Finally, Mr. Harper tells prospective lawyers to look in the mirror. It's time to see the world as it is, and now how you want it to be. Before you run up a big debt you need to make damn sure this is what you want to do. You need to know what the economic climate is in the legal profession, you need to find out how BigLaw operates (if that's what you want to do) and you need to decide if that's the life you want. Too many students go into law school without the foggiest notion of what the world is going to look like after they cross the stage and pass the bar.

A very clear and important underlying message of The Lawyer Bubble is the need to always remember that ours is a profession dedicated to serving our clients nor a business model to maximize profits.

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