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Solving the Lawyer Glut

By Richard A. Primus

SOMEONE YOU LOVE is going to be a lawyer.

Many readers will now recoil in horror, but truth is truth. I live in a group of six juniors. One is a bio concentrator. One is an artist. The other four are waiting for LSAT scores.

A year and a half ago, The New York Times Magazine claimed that law was becoming the standard default profession for intelligent, non-science oriented Americans unable to decide upon their occupations after finishing college. This campus provides no evidence to the contrary. Look around and count. If your friends include upperclass students not concentrating in natural sciences, they probably include many on the law school track.

In each of the last three years, the Office of Career Services records, Harvard students have released information regarding between 800 and 900 of their law school applications. Given that not all applications are so recorded, the true number is even higher. No matter what shortfalls will continue to plague our society, here is one area where we need not worry. There is no shortage of lawyers, nor will there be in the foreseeable future.

The good news ends right there. Despite the surplus of practitioners, certain kinds of legal services are in critically short supply. Court systems at every level from the municipal to the federal suffer from prohibitive over-loads, commonly delaying resolution of legal disputes for months or even years. The problem is particularly acute among the poor. According to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, existing legal services provide for less than one-sixth of the civil legal needs of low-income residents of the Commonwealth. Overall, low-income Massachusetts residents go without legal assistance in 60 per cent of the instances in which it is needed because they either fear legal counsel will be too expensive or they simply do not know how to obtain it.

If we have plenty of lawyers but not enough of certain legal services, the problem is distribution. Quite simply, law school graduates do not choose to make their livings practicing public service law. The National Law Journal claims that only two percent of law grads go into public service law, as opposed to the 63.5 percent who take their first jobs with private firms. And the much-touted pro bono work that some private firms undertake is largely insignificant. Some firms use the allure of pro bono work to attract new associates, but few if any actually require such public service efforts from their employees.

In a September 1989 article in The Washington Monthly titled "The Pro Bono Hustle," Liza Mundy inquired about the role that pro bono work plays in promoting the careers of young attorneys. "Partners hastened to say that pro bono would never actually count against you," she discovered. Public service is not a recognized evil. What a relief.

The distribution problem can be corrected. There is a way to get law school graduates--nearly all of them, in fact--to work in public service law.

Force them.

A TWO-YEAR PERIOD of public service legal work should be made a requirement for admission to the bar. Upon completion of law school, prospective attorneys would apply their skills where they are most needed in much the same way that medical school graduates now work as hospital interns. Unlike the medical model, the purpose of the mandatory legal service program would not be professional training but rather providing for the unmet legal needs of our communities. After admission to the bar, lawyers could be required to contribute four weeks of public service work every four years for as long as they continued to practice law.

A mandatory period of public service law would serve another purpose as well. Law is a profession with a moral basis that we should seek to enhance. Strictly speaking, attorneys are already officers of the court and carry the ethical responsibilities bound up with that status. It may be time to make lawyers take those social responsibilities more seriously.

Lawyers, like politicians and teachers, are among those most responsible for shaping the standards of our community. But the image of the American legal profession is a tarnished one, and understandably so. Transforming the structure of responsibilities in that profession would change the assumptions that surround it.

SOME WILL CHARGE, as many New York lawyers did when that state's bar recently recommended that every attorney perform 20 hours of pro bono work each year, that requiring citizens to do work not of their choosing is simply a form of slavery. That argument, however, is barely above contempt. First, it ignores the reality that our society does require contributions of our time to fulfill civil duties--we are, for example, obligated to serve on juries when called.

Moreover, law students would consent to serve by deciding to apply for admission to the bar, just as medical students consent to work as residents. Public service would simply be made a requirement for the practice of law. No one is forced to be a lawyer. Those who choose to be choose the responsibilities as well as the privileges.

The objection that this proposal would pair those most in need of legal assistance with the least experienced attorneys is similarly specious. Experienced attorneys would serve as well in the four-week stints mentioned above; young lawyers could work under permanent supervisors; and a new lawyer certainly provides better assistance than no lawyer at all.

Promulgating such a program might seem daunting, for its aim is little less than a fundamental restructuring of American jurisprudence. According to Gary Singsen at Harvard's Program on the Legal Profession, no work experience has been required for admission to the bar in this country in this century. But the need is real and the solution rewarding. Courts would become less clogged. Thousands of people would have easier access to needed legal assistance. And the image of the law, which ought to be one of the most respected spheres of a healthy society, would improve as attorneys became a reserve army of public servants instead of hired guns propelled by profit motive.

Someone you love is going to be a lawyer. And we would all be happier if that thought made you proud.

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