January 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

Philip Thomas has a thoughtful post on his blog about the shrinking legal sector and its impact on the Mississippi legal profession. His post focuses on the big firms and their purges (i.e., layoffs) of numbers of attorneys. The post is worth a read; in fact, if Mr. Thomas’s blog is not on your regular reading list, it should be as a great way to keep up with developments in the law, courts and legal profession in our state.

One of the significant points of the article is that the slumping legal profession does not offer adequate opportunities for graduates who have accumulated massive law-school-tuition debt to retire that debt.

From where I sit, I will accept that premise insofar as it describes the big-firm experience. I wonder, though, whether it accurately describes the legal profession’s situation out here in the vast hinterland, as opposed to the Jackson metropolitan area where most of the big firms are concentrated. The great preponderance of legal work is done out here by lawyers from firms of 1-5, hardly “big” by any definition. Their work involves representing people — not corporations — in mundane matters involving estates, divorces, land matters, guardianships and conservatorships, commitments, Youth Court, felonies and misdemeanors, zoning, custody, child support, wills, and so on.

How are those small-firm lawyers doing? I don’t have any scientific data, and I haven’t done any real research, but I do have some anecdotal evidence and impressions.   

My sense is that the small-firm lawyers are doing quite well, with a couple of caveats, and I base that statement on these observations:

  • I do not see small law firms cutting associates loose or otherwise downsizing lawyer staff.
  • Ordinarily, in a downturn, we see lawyers appearing in chancery court who ordinarily do not set foot there. I have seen a small handful of that happening, but nothing like what I have seen in the past in much less inhospitable economic periods.
  • Pro se filings are on the rise. We are seeing people filing pro se pleadings even in relatively complex matters, which would seem for the most part to indicate that they do not have — or believe they do not have — enough money to hire a lawyer to do it for them. I view this development as a chipping away at the edge of legal business, not a hacking attack at the core. I believe that, although most lawyers would say they wish they could get those clients into their offices, the lawyers would find that these are the clients who would be slow- or no-pay. So, although on the surface it looks like a loss of business, it appears to me to be a loss of non-lucrative business.
  • I ask lawyers all the time how business is doing, and almost without exception they say they have more work than they can handle. Their frequency in court confirms the fact. I am sure that there are some lawyers who are struggling, particularly with collections, but I believe for the most part that there is enough work representing people to go around to keep lawyers in business.
  • Having made the previous point, I have noticed that some small-firm lawyers have eliminated secretarial positions. Where several years ago a theoretical sole practitioner had a receptionist/file clerk and two secretaries, that lawyer is now making do with one secretary.
  • I have not heard any of the younger lawyers express any concern about paying their student loans, although I concede that is not necessarily the kind of thing they might share, much less with me. Still, a lawyer being sued for default would be the kind of news around small courthouses that one would expect to hear if it happened.
  • Lawyer success in this tough economy rises out of one’s willingness to take on what people are willing to hire one to do, as well as achievement of a reputation for competence, reasonableness, efficiency and integration into the community. 

Last year a law school professor asked me whether I knew of any firms in our area that were hiring, and pointed out that not a single graduate for that term had a job offer. That, my friends, is the “Lawyer Bubble” to which Mr. Thomas refers.

I do believe, however, that there is work enough for new and uprooted lawyers to plant and grow their own legal businesses out here in the small towns and cities of Mississippi where there are non-predatory lawyers who will work collegially with them to help them get established. After all, the legal profession is not a zero-sum game.

My conclusion is that there is indeed a lawyer bubble in the sense that law schools are continuing to pump out graduates at a rate greater than the big-firm legal industry can absorb them, but that there is a niche for lawyers who want to find a place in the legal profession representing people in the myriad of legal problems that confront them. No, that is not likely the path to great (or even near-great) riches, but there is a comfortable living and professional satisfaction for those who take that path.

Of course, my views are based on the geography I inhabit. The experience may be entirely different in other parts of the state, but I don’t know of a place that would be markedly different from our experience here in east Mississippi and the 12th District.           

Your take may be different. I’d be interested in your comments.

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§ 4 Responses to THE LAWYER BUBBLE

  • Anderson says:

    “Still, a lawyer being sued for default would be the kind of news around small courthouses that one would expect to hear if it happened.”

    I may be incorrect, but I don’t think that federal student loans necessarily result in lawsuits for default. The nature of the deal is such that the creditors can garnish paychecks without even needing to secure a judgment.

    • Larry says:

      Thank you for that. I had no student loans since tuition was still in the hundreds instead of thousands back in my day, and I thankfully had the support to get through, and my children — again thankfully — have taken care of what I fell short of doing. So my experience is lacking.

      But is it not against public policy to have an automatic judgment for default? Sorry … the terminology escapes me.

      • Anderson says:

        I suppose that is in the fine print of the loan contract somewhere. Federal student loans have so many magical properties: nondischargeable in bankruptcy, antique interest rates ….

  • Philip Thomas says:

    Thank you for the cite to my blog. I read this blog every day. It is a great resource, particularly for chancery matters.

    In addition to your comments, small town lawyers also usually seem happier with their practices and lives than big firm lawyers.

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