"Eighty percent of the poor in the United States are unable to afford a lawyer or find pro bono help for their civil legal problems, according to the American Bar Association." That sentence, from an American Lawyer article last month, is not only embarrassing. It's also an omen.
The article in question, titled "Unmet Needs," was part of a special series on pro bono in the United States, including the top 100 pro bono-friendly law firms and a powerful critique of big-firm pro bono by Deborah Rhode. The latter piece highlighted how pro bono at too many firms is less an exercise in professional and public responsibility than it is an opportunity to enhance associate recruitment and retention and score some easy PR points. The result, Rhode points out, is that the clients most in need — the "sob stories" and "difficult clients" referenced in the article — are the least likely to get pro bono help from these firms.
It reminded me of a conversation I had last year with two senior practitioners of the local bar. Both lawyers were partners in national firms; both were also extensively involved in volunteer and community activities. They were lamenting the pro bono culture that had taken hold in law firms, especially among newer lawyers. Young associates were constantly clamouring to do pro bono work for one socially aware organization or another. "What I'd like to see," one lawyer said, "is a lot more of them go down to family court and help out some of the unrepresented litigants there. That's where we need pro bono help right now."
pro bono help of that kind is just the sort of "unmet need" that the American Lawyer article was talking about. The writers spoke with legal aid and pro bono lawyers across the US and identified five "needs baskets" where the demand for pro bono work is great and the supply from big firms is limited:
- Representing military personnel
- Helping the unemployed
- Easing the load in family court
- The cracking pro bono infrastructure
- Serving the rural poor
The first category might be uniquely demanding in the US (and perhaps also Great Britain) right now, but the other four needs baskets are present in virtually every common-law jurisdiction. AmLaw was focusing on pro bono and large law firms, but it seems to me that this is part of a larger pattern of areas systematically under-served by lawyers.
It's almost received wisdom in our profession that many practitioners couldn't afford to hire themselves if they needed a lawyer, a statement that I suspect is at least a little exaggerated. But for many people, especially those in the categories above, it's no joke: they flatly cannot afford to hire a lawyer for anything more than the most basic tasks. Legal assistance is a service that middle-class people, with help from family members and savings accounts, can just about manage. It's something that working-class people struggle terribly to afford. And for the poor and unemployed, it's legal aid, pro bono, or nothing. And thanks to the recession, legal aid systems are being cut back in the US, the UK and Canada, while the number of people applying for legal aid is growing.
If you're a lawyer with a conscience, that should bother you a great deal. But even if you're without a conscience, you should still be worried by this trend, because it's about to dovetail with another trend and lead to some serious consequences: lawyer shortages outside urban centers are starting to become endemic in some countries.
Canada: "43 percent of lawyers practising in [B.C.] are now over the age of 50 … in the last 10 years the numbers of lawyers aged 51 to 60 has doubled, with an average age across the province of 47 years old. In small communities, the aging of the profession is even more pronounced, with an average age of over 50 years old."
Australia: "[M]any rural and regional practices do not have enough lawyers to service community needs, with 43 per cent of principals indicating that their practice currently does not have enough lawyers to service its client base. The problems looks set to escalate, with a large number of lawyers – many of whom are sole practitioners – looking to retire from practice in the next five years."
Japan: "The dateline is Yakumo, a small city of almost 20,000 within a legal district of about 50,000. Journalist Norimitsu Onishi reports that it is not unusual for cities five times that size to have not a single lawyer."
The root causes of lawyer shortages are the same everywhere: aging practitioners ready to wind down their practices, not enough young lawyers willing to move to smaller communities to replace them. It's not surprising that the US, a country with more than one million lawyers, doesn't have many lawyer shortages, but less heavily populated states like Maine and Idaho are reporting such shortages already. Most industrialized countries are facing the prospect of communities without enough lawyers to serve the local population.
So from one direction, we have growing numbers of people in dire circumstances needing but not getting lawyers' help. And from the other direction comes a growing number of non-urban centers without enough lawyers to meet residents' legal needs. Without question, the demand for legal services is growing — but the supply of these services, how much they cost, and where and to whom they'll be delivered all lie within the control of lawyers. And as we've seen, we can't always count on lawyers to put the public interest ahead of their own interest when deciding how their supply will meet that demand.
So how do you think this is going to end? Faced with a legal profession unable or unwilling to provide affordable legal services to clients whom and in communities where they have little economic interest, do you suppose governments will stand idly by? Do you think they won't wonder why it is that lawyers and only lawyers are licensed to provide the great majority of legal services? Do you think they'll continue to believe that the Unauthorized Practice of Law is a legitimate restraint on the delivery of legal services? Do you think they'll ever consider lawyers to be anything other than facilitators of legal services delivery?
If you think all these things will come to pass, that the status quo will roll along unchecked, then more power to you. But if not, then you might yet come to believe that the era when lawyers were in control of the legal services marketplace is drawing rapidly to a close.