That was the upshot of a particularly memorable conversation I had with my eldest daughter when she was about 6 or 7 years old. The conversation has come to my mind several times recently, thanks to our poor – although allegedly improving – economy. The conversation Julia and I had went something like this.
I was scheduled to sit as the judge pro-tem in probate a day or two later, and had to stop by the courthouse to drop off my tentative rulings, which were to be prepared and posted prior to my assignment date. Julia was in the car with me and we had just come from my office, my “real job.” This was one in a series of stops and errands, typical for a working mother of young children.
When she asked why we were stopping by the courthouse, I explained to her that it was something I had to take care of for work. “But I thought you worked at your office?” she asked.
“Well, I do, but I also sometimes work here, when the judge asks me to.”
“So, this is your office?”
“No, my office is where we just were, where Nita works.” Nita was our long-time secretary. “I just work here sometimes, when I need to be a judge for a day.”
“Did Grandma work here, too?” Now she’s getting seriously confused. My mom had retired a few years before this, and Julia knew that we had been in practice together.
“No, Grandma never worked here. She worked at my office, which used to be just her office. But when I grew up and went to law school, I decided to work with her at the office. Maybe one day when you grow up, if you decide to go to law school too, you can come to work at the office with me.”
After several moments of processing, Julia replied with a heavy sigh, “Yeah. Or I could just work at the mall.”
The trickle-down effect of the poor economy has touched all of us in some way, and it doesn’t come as news to any of us – practicing lawyers or those who support the practice of law – that we are in the same leaky boat as the rest of the world. Aside from the traditional results, such as layoffs, part-time work, reductions in benefits and the like, the economy has affected the legal field in ways that you don’t often hear about, but that cause one to consider the future of our profession.
The state of New Jersey came up with a novel way of increasing revenue without increasing their payroll. A hiring freeze prevented the New Jersey Attorney General’s office from hiring a replacement when one of their lawyers left. Seeing attorney positions in her office down about 25 percent, and knowing that lots of lawyers were looking for work, the New Jersey Attorney General created a volunteer program. While many of us have found ourselves unintentionally working for free lately, the New Jersey AG’s office has three full-time attorneys who volunteer their time for the debt recovery unit.
The volunteer attorney must commit at least 20 hours a week for three months, but most have stayed on for more beyond that commitment. The typical volunteer lawyer is a recent law school graduate who has not yet landed their first job, thanks to a shrinking pool of available positions. But the experience has paid off for both employer and employee. The volunteers are earning some valuable legal experience doing research, taking depositions, and occasionally sitting as second-chair in court, while the state of New Jersey has increased revenue not only by increasing the collections thanks to the extra help, but also by saving loads of money on salary and benefits.
In keeping with past down economies, certain sectors of crime have recently increased, and some California attorneys have sadly been the perpetrators. The California State Bar reports an increasing number of lawyers who will be disciplined this year for wrongdoing associated in some way with the recession. Clients who in the past might have been timely and diligent in paying their legal fees have turned into slow- or no- payers, making their lawyers more desperate themselves.
It is no surprise to learn that there has been an uptick in the traditional culprits that land attorneys before the State Bar Court, such as mishandling of client trust funds. In 2008, the State Bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel filed in State Bar Court 369 notices containing more than 650 different disciplinary charges – from the prior year, this represents a 15 percent increase in the number of notices filed, and 21 percent increase in the total number of charges contained in those notices. As of this writing, 2009 figures were not yet available.
But the recession itself spawned its own cottage industry – loan re-modifications. And sadly, there are dishonest attorneys always at the ready to assist. Under investigation are more than 1,200 loan modification cases where consumers have complained that their attorney promised to help and did nothing. In February, a Southern California lawyer gained the distinction of becoming the first California lawyer arrested due to alleged illicit loan modification activities. Christopher Lee Diener was charged with more than 100 felonies, including grand theft by false pretenses, conspiracy to commit grand theft, and perjury. If convicted, he faces up to 70 years in prison. But it’s not just licensed attorneys who find themselves out of work and out of options. In 2008, Harvard Law School launched a tuition waiver program for third-year students who agreed to commit their practice to public interest law for five years after graduation. For the first two years that the program was in operation, the university forgave partial tuition for participating students, and waived the full $40,000 tuition during the final two years. Late last year, Harvard announced that the program was suspended indefinitely to incoming students.
Harvard suffered an almost unfathomable loss in its endowment fund, down to $11 billion in 2009 from a high of $36.9 billion. The $25 billion loss coincided with a larger- than-expected turnout in students looking for public interest jobs, many of whom were no doubt interested in the field because the big law firms have cut back on hiring students, or postponed their start dates.
Self-described legal tabloids AboveTheLaw. com and LawShucks.com have teamed up to keep track of the layoffs since January of last year. According to those sites, since Jan. 1, 2008, more than 14,000 people, lawyers and staff, have been laid off by major law firms. The biggest hits came during the first quarter of last year, when about half of the total layoffs occurred. About 250 were laid off in the first two months of this year.
So what does all this mean? For one thing, Julia’s well-thought out plan for her future employment might not come to pass. She is now 14-years-old, and our average month sees us make multiple trips to the mall. Each time we walk through we see more and more empty storefronts. It sounded so simple, didn’t it? “I could just work at the mall.” I sadly suspect that the retail jobs in the local mall are now being sought after by some of the approximately 15,000 lawyers and staff who have lost their jobs in the last couple of years. Maybe she’ll have to go to law school after all.