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Firm Hand for Hard Times

Incoming ABA President Carolyn Lamm seeks aid for lawyers facing economic woes

Posted Aug 1, 2009 7:20 PM CDT
By James Podgers

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Carolyn Lamm
Photo by Tim Llewellyn

When ABA leaders convened a meeting on may 27 to gauge the impact of the recession on various segments of the legal profession, they heard a consistent message.

“Everyone was expressing pain,” says incoming ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm, perhaps the most interested listener of all as representatives of various segments of the legal profession gave their assessments of the economy’s impact on their fields of practice. “We really heard the views of all segments of the profession,” she says, “and all are experiencing a tremendously difficult and challenging time.”

Lamm, a partner at White & Case in Washington, D.C., will begin her one-year term as ABA president on Aug. 4 at the close of the association’s 2009 annual meeting in Chicago.

In accordance with the ABA’s process for selecting its leaders, Lamm entered the pipeline to the presidency about four years ago—in a very different economic environment.

“When I ran, I never anticipated the economic crisis,” says Lamm. But now it appears the impact of the recession on the justice system will be at the top of her agenda. Not even her firm has escaped the economic downturn. White & Case—one of the world’s largest firms with offices in 36 cities on five continents—has laid off nearly 600 people in recent months, nearly half of them lawyers. Lamm’s practice focuses primarily on commercial arbitration and litigation.

Layoffs have swept through many of the most prominent law firms in the country, and many overseas as well. Some estimates put the number of law firm layoffs for 2009 at more than 10,000, including nearly 4,000 lawyers. Many firms have imposed pay cuts and reduced hiring. Drops in revenue of 10 percent to 20 percent from 2008 levels also have been reported.

“Most firms are looking very carefully at both discretionary expenses and their most important resource—their talent pool,” says Lamm.

But the impact on law firms is just one aspect of the problems the economy is creating for the justice system, she adds.

Cash-strapped states are cutting funding for courts and other justice services. And although Congress and the Obama administration are moving to bolster funding for the Legal Services Corp., which supports local offices that provide civil legal services to the poor, an estimated 80 percent of legal needs of low-income people go unmet. Those needs are becoming even more pressing as growing numbers of homeowners face mortgage foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment.

Legal services “is one of the greatest needs of the public that is not being met,” says Lamm, who has spent the past year as ABA president-elect planning the initiatives she will implement in the coming months.

“It’s been a very busy year for me in the ABA already,” Lamm says. “The important thing is to focus on the issues you can have an impact on.”

OUTSIDE THE BOX

Early on, Lamm signaled her expectation that the ABA think creatively about how it might lead efforts to help both lawyers hit by job cuts and low-income people with legal needs.

Speaking in December at the Access to Justice Symposium presented in Atlanta by the Section of Litigation, Lamm urged law firms to create programs that assign lawyers who might otherwise be laid off to handle cases for low-income clients—albeit for less salary.

Since Lamm proposed the idea, a number of firms—including her own—have adopted it. Still, such programs are just one step. “It’s wonderful,” she says, “but it’s a Band-Aid on a very severe wound.”

The ABA already has taken steps to collect information on support services for lawyers feeling the recessionary pinch in a single Economic Recovery Resources portal on the ABA website.

One of the featured services has been a Recession Recovery Tele­conference Series, offered free to ABA members. Members also may download programs from the series.

Other information available on the Economic Recovery Resources portal includes articles, books and links for lawyers engaged in job searches and networking. The links include LegallyMinded.com, the ABA’s online networking site. Other areas covered by the portal include career transitioning, complimentary and low-cost CLE programming, insurance, practice management resources and stress management.

Members also may link to information about the ABA’s Financial Hardship Dues Program. Under the program, members experiencing financial difficulties will be charged $100 for their ABA memberships for the 2009-10 year, which starts Sept. 1. Members who lost jobs in the past year and remain unemployed may renew their memberships for $50. (Normally, annual dues range from $125 for lawyers licensed for one year to $399 for lawyers licensed at least 10 years.)

As a next step, Lamm was authorized by the ABA Board of Governors in June to appoint a Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profes­sion. Lamm says she wants the commission to move quickly to develop additional ways the ABA can help members cope with the transforming economy and to study how the legal profession can position itself to better withstand future crises. Potential actions, she says, are bolstering the job listings on the ABA’s website and co-sponsoring more programs with state bar associations.

In a related move, Lamm will appoint a task force to implement the Segment Value Membership Initiative. Last September, task forces representing 12 different areas of the legal profession were convened to identify ways in which the ABA can enhance the quality of services it provides to each of those groups. The new entity will work with the Standing Committee on Membership to implement the recommendations of those task forces.

Lamm says the ABA continues to look at its dues-pricing structure. The House of Delegates, which has final say on dues, will consider specific recommendations at the 2010 midyear meeting in Orlando, Fla. The next three-year dues cycle begins on Sept. 1, 2010. The current sliding-scale dues structure went into effect at the start of the ABA’s 2006-07 year, and there have been no dues increases since then.

As with any voluntary organization, the leadership at the ABA keeps a very close eye on membership trends, especially during a difficult economic climate, and Lamm acknowledges that this year’s budgeting process has been intensive. But she is not surprised that the ABA’s membership numbers have held fairly steady during the past year.

“This is exactly when the ABA has its greatest value” for members, she says.

Current ABA membership stands at 361,000, including regular members, law students and associate members.

NO TURNING BACK

Lamm will appoint two other entities with mandates to address significant issues facing the legal profession:

• The Commission on Diversity will work to implement recommendations developed at the ABA National Summit on Diversity in the Legal Profession, which was held in June. Outgoing ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr., a partner at Maynard Cooper & Gale in Birmingham, Ala., convened the summit to identify ways to help lawyers of color and female lawyers advance their careers. While those plans are still developing, says Lamm, “we will do something that will make a difference in some way.”

• The Commission on Ethics 20/20 will provide a thorough review of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct as well as other developments in the area of lawyer regulation, including regulatory activities of the federal government, the impact of international agreements and changes in how other countries regulate lawyers.

Regulation and economic concerns reflect a convergence of issues that are at the center of the current uncertainty facing the U.S. legal profession as it struggles with the recession. And, Lamm suggests, the adjustments may be deep and lasting.

“There’s not only the economic downturn to contend with,” she says, “but globalization and technology are having an effect on how we practice. I don’t think the U.S. legal profession is in a position that it can ignore what’s going on worldwide.”

It’s still hard to see what’s at the other end of the tunnel, says Lamm. “I don’t know that we can think it will all go back to where it was, and the legal profession will have to make adjustments to new realities.”

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