The economy continues to inflict financial distress upon many lawyers — excruciatingly so for graduating law students. With law firms downsizing, the previously unthinkable waves of lay-offs have compounded the new grad's dilemma by pushing experienced lawyers into the swollen ranks of job-seekers.The problem, according to Coffey, is that neither law schools nor law graduates are prepared to represent members of the wide swath of society that lies between people (hey corporations are people) paying Vault firm partners $800 an hour to try to extend a patent for ten months, and the wretched refuse of our teeming shores, which apparently has access to a plethora of "legal aid organizations."
Ironically, while thousands of new law graduates fret about the chronic joblessness that awaits them, tens of millions of Americans need attorneys but cannot afford them. And much of the unmet need rests in America's middle class, which is neither rich enough to pay $250 an hour for lawyers nor poor enough to qualify for legal aid organizations.
One of the greatest challenges facing the legal profession is to facilitate an effective, broad-sale union of jobless lawyers with lawyerless clients. To meet the challenge, brand new attorneys would have to be willing and able to represent America's middle class.
Despite the obvious need, especially in light of current conditions, many law schools and new graduates are neither prepared nor inclined to focus upon middle class representation. Image-conscious law schools fear that doing so might lower their rankings; law students laden with student loans might prefer careers outside of law to the modest income a middle-class practice would bring.Instead of fleeing to the many well-paid non-law jobs whose doors fly open as soon as someone possessing a Versatile Law Degree(TM) approaches, debt-ridden law graduates who haven't been able to find jobs with big firms should represent the middle class. All they need to do is run low-overhead law practices, made possible in this wondrous age in which we live by The Internet, Social Networking Etc:
The reality is that with prudent office economics, recent law graduates could earn decent compensation and launch successful practices, with the opportunity to continue to earn more. Rather than work for a law firm at high rates, of which two thirds goes to the employer, new lawyers could charge much lower rates and keep the earnings for themselves. Rates of between $50 and $125 per hour would make new lawyers affordable to the middle class while providing the lawyers with enough income to succeed.Now why didn't anybody think of something like this before? Indeed I think we may have a whole new economic theory here: if you cut operating expenses, you can cut prices, and new markets for your product will appear. It's so simple it's brilliant.
The reality is that attorneys working at law firms usually receive compensation — computed on an hourly basis — within a range comparable to what a middle-class practice might generate. To maximize earnings from middle class clients means controlling overhead expenses, but these days new lawyers have little need for secretarial assistance. And using a home office or shared space can assure that the vast majority of revenues accrue to the bottom line. Hard-copy legal libraries — once a financial drain — are virtually extinct, and computerized legal research is more affordable than ever. Once a field of affordable and competent lawyers appears, middle class clients will come.
I've spoken with many lawyers, many readers. You know who you are. You know that I know the truth. The business of criminal defense is dying. It's awful. It sucks. And you're hanging on by a thread, if at all. Yet, most put on their game face, talking themselves up as if they are somehow beating the odds, knocking down the world, making a killing. Nobody wants to tell their brethren that they're in the same boat, struggling daily to cover the nut and praying that the next phone call isn't another nutjob or desperate defendant without a dime to his name.Indeed we haven't. But it's not just the lawprofs . . . I wonder what sort of overhead Kendall Coffey's firm runs through each month? Of course Coffey's clients aren't "middle class" -- Coffey is for closers. The former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida believes it would be possible to run an actual law practice while billing $50 an hour, and that people aren't doing this because they would rather either make the big bucks doing law talking for rich people, or bailing on law altogether for apparently more lucrative alternative careers, rather than swallowing their pride and making a modest middle class living representing the Great American Middle Class.
It's not that there is a shortage of criminal defendants, though crime is significantly down and serious crime even more so. There is a shortage of criminal defendants who can afford to pay for a lawyer. Sure, there are some lawyers who are doing well, but you can count them on your fingers and toes, without resort to dropping trou. And there are a great many criminal defense lawyers, exceptionally good ones, who fight over crumbs these days, because that's all they can do to survive.
It's time we admit this, because walking around the courtroom hallways with our chests puffed out isn't putting any food on our tables.
During my phone call, we spoke of the baby lawyers hanging out in the hallways trying to catch the attention of a defendant's mother with $100 in her pocket. We spoke of n00bs, barely competent if at all, taking felonies for $1500 total. He didn't blame them, knowing they had loans to pay.
The lawprofs are busy reinventing law school so they can continue to churn out tens of thousands of new lawyers. The talk is about law school tuition and practice-ready lawyers. The theory is that if they can produce lawyers without the $150,000 in debt, they can service the middle class, who can't afford legal representation.
It's a lie, but the lawprofs don't realize it. They've never experienced law office finance, what it takes to pay rent and phone, or staff and equipment. While student loan debt is a factor, it's only one of many. They don't grasp what every criminal defense lawyer faces daily, the cost of merely existing. They never paid a rent bill during their judicial clerkship or stint in the United States Attorney's office.
I bet Coffey is one of those guys who thinks that somebody making $125K is "middle class." That's the only way his math works, anyway, because real middle class people in this country (median household income is down to around $45K per year) don't have any discretionary income for something like paying a lawyer.
Nobody has any money. That's actually the whole problem right there, in four words.