By Michael Kemp
The question of whether there are too many lawyers in Minnesota has been hotly contested for years, and around the country, the issue of legal employment has gained attention with high-profile stories in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. (In other news, Generalissimo Fransisco Franco is still dead). These stories always seem to center on the issue of whether there are too many law graduates (here in Minnesota), or speaking more generally, whether the number of law graduates exceeds the number of legal jobs.
These arguments entirely miss the point. As anyone in solo or small practice knows, there are always jobs out there, if you are willing to create them. Let’s talk about what we are talking about. There are more lawyers than there is money to support their employment.
Here’s some numbers to spice up the soup: 378 legal job “openings” for 888 Minnesota bar passers in 2009. Fine. But the numbers of “available” clients are staggering. The National Center for State Courts’s statistics indicate that, in states sampled, the percentage of cases where at least one party is pro se is often around 70% in family law cases, and around 90% in unlawful detainer (eviction) cases. The U.S. Courts website reports that in federal court, more than one out of three cases have at least one pro se litigant. One in ten are still pro se after removing prisoner petitions from the count. And of course, public defenders nationwide are swamped with cases of people who would otherwise be pro se. So there may be a huge number of unemployed lawyers, but there is also a huge unmet legal need.
What’s the point, you ask? Good question. I know I had a point around here somewhere. And it probably wasn’t that every person left without representation is a tragedy.
First (channeling Ronald Regan here): Competition is good. There should be more attorneys than openings. The NFL would be a poor sport to watch if any schmuck who wanted to play pro football could do so. If they did that, it would be… baseball.
More importantly, though, if there is a glut of under-represented or un-represented clients, why don’t more people simply go solo? The clients are out there. The answer, of course, is money. Not that clients don’t have any of it, but that lawyers need more of it. The price of law school – long a contentious issue in itself – is not only causing lawyers to run up too much debt, but preventing a large segment of the public from being able to afford the help it needs. If mechanics had to go through the expense lawyers do, no one would ever get their car fixed.
These two problems – too many lawyers and too many unrepresented parties – are only held back from solving each other by the cost of law school. Let’s be clear. Focusing the issue on whether there are too many lawyers encourages solutions like closing law schools, increasing admissions standards, or ratcheting up the difficulty of the bar. These solutions will create less unemployed lawyers only because they will create less lawyers period. It won’t solve the root of the problem. The problem is not that there are too many lawyers in the state. It is that there is too much debt.