Leadership When It's Needed Most
The economic crisis has taken its toll not only on the general public but also on every type of legal practice, from solo and small firms to in-house counsel. In addition, during the past year, more than 10,000 employees at major law firms lost their positions or endured significant pay cuts. Several national firms closed their doors forever.
Due to shrinking law firm summer programs and increased competition for public interest positions and clerkships, law students and young lawyers face great uncertainty. Many graduates have had job offers deferred until the economy gets back on track. And senior lawyers who planned to retire have instead watched their 401(k) plans evaporate.
The economic downturn also has placed our legal system’s fundamental values at risk. While government and public interest budgets are dwindling, the need for legal services for the poor is increasing. The record amount of pro bono hours lawyers are providing cannot alone fill the gap. Neither can the bar’s recent successful efforts to increase federal funding for legal services.
Budget shortfalls are also severely reducing funding for court operations. As public use increases, courts are forced to cut back hours, limit services, and operate truncated probation and sentencing schedules.
The American Bar Association is responding in various ways. At my request, the ABA Board of Governors created the Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession and Legal Needs, chaired by Allan Tanenbaum. Earlier this year, the ABA launched its Economic Recovery Resources Web portal at abanet.org/economicrecovery, which has attracted thousands of visitors. Resources include free and low-cost programs and services throughout the ABA and state and local bar associations about job searches, career transitioning and practice management tips. Also included is the ABA’s Recession Recovery Teleconference Series on a variety of topics, such as strategies for success in today’s economy and safeguarding personal savings.
The Web portal also offers a jobs board that lists paid and unpaid legal positions throughout the country, with a link to judicial internship opportunities for young lawyers deferred from associate positions. This is a win-win—for judges whose staffs have been reduced and for deferred associates who can gain valuable experience.
These resources are just some of the initiatives overseen by the ABA’s economic crisis commission. The commission is promoting loan repayment and deferral for unemployed lawyers and lawyers working in public service. It is sharing information on corporate counsel waivers of conflict restrictions to enable outside counsel to provide pro bono aid to people facing foreclosure. The commission is also developing a fellows program that enables unemployed and underemployed lawyers to gain valuable experience on a variety of ABA public service projects. And it is seeking to match unemployed lawyers with firms that have short-term project needs.
Visit abanet.org/economicrecovery to learn more; also visit the ABA’s Division for Legal Services at abanet.org/legalservices. Resources for solos and small firms are at abanet.org/genpractice, the website of the ABA’s General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
TACKLING CHALLENGES HEAD-ON
Aside from providing professional development assistance to lawyers, the ABA is a leader in ensuring that all citizens have access to justice. Last spring, the ABA joined with the National Center for State Courts to host 300 officials from all three branches of state government to discuss the continuing need for funding for courts and related government services. Our work continues under the leadership of our Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, working with the Judicial Division and the National Center for State Courts.
The ABA is also anticipating consequences that the transforming economy will have for our legal system. Our Task Force on Financial Markets Regulatory Reform is examining regulatory developments, analyzing their potential impact and coordinating the ABA’s response.
Despite these trying times, the economic upheaval will provide opportunities for lawyers. The legal profession is entering a period of rapid and significant change that will affect much more than billing arrangements and hiring practices. Historically, financial crisis prompts a regulatory transformation, generating new demand for legal expertise. Indeed, many of the high-value activities that the nation’s largest law firms engage in today—transactional work, advice on mergers, and regulatory compliance—came of age during the New Deal.
Given the ABA’s response thus far, I am confident we will build not only on our service to members but also on our leadership in the broader issues of access to justice and right to counsel in civil cases when litigants face the loss of their homes, families or other basic needs. If we accomplish this, we will have made lemonade from the lemons of the economic crisis.