In November, 2013, a “special task force report” by the State Bar of Wisconsin concluded that a large number of new law grads can’t find jobs to pay off their staggering student debt loads. In addition, many of those who were fortunate enough to be employed (or underemployed) were afraid to practice law because they didn’t know how. Here’s a nice excerpt of a summary of the report from the bar association’s e-newsletter:
“My debt is higher than a mortgage for a nice house. It’s all I think about. And I know I will be strapped in a job I don’t want paying debt for the rest of my life,” said [one new lawyer].
“I’m buried under debt. I’m terrified that this is what the rest of my life is going to look like. I’m also scared to start my own practice, because I don’t have the practical litigation experience. I can’t afford a pet, let alone kids. I live paycheck to paycheck. It’s very, very scary and disheartening,” was another response from a new lawyer.
Another lawyer said the job search left the lawyer feeling “suicidal” and “terrified.” The lawyer also feels alone and scared of making a mistake in practice but is hesitant to tell anyone about these mental struggles for fear of being disbarred.
. . . [A] task force member and past president of the State Bar’s Young Lawyer’s Division said the lawyers who made these sorts of comments “are fast becoming your average member of the State Bar.”
So, in short: lots of stress due to high debt loads, no jobs, and the fear of practicing law because of the lack of training and the related risk of disbarment. So what is the state bar’s solution?
In December, the state bar sent out an email to all members titled “Reduce your stress with exclusive benefits for State Bar of Wisconsin members.” One of those “benefits” was the “opportunity” to do pro bono legal work, because “volunteering can help improve people’s mental heath.” Fortunately, “Whether you are an experienced lawyer or just getting started, there are pro bono opportunities available to you throughout the year. Visit the State Bar’s online volunteer directory[.]”
Now, in fairness, even though this email came out after the state bar’s “special task force report,” the person who slapped this email together probably didn’t even know the task force report existed or, if he did, probably never had any reason to read it. But although these two documents are not related, the irony is rich. First, the state bar acknowledges that new grads are stressed out (to the point of having suicidal thoughts) because they don’t have any money and don’t know how to practice the profession they just paid handsomely to learn. And second, to alleviate this stress the state bar recommends that these new lawyers offer free legal services to real people with real legal problems. This is almost too much for me to process, but two thoughts come to mind.
First, while I appreciate the softball my mandatory state bar just lobbed me, this whole “giving back” culture is starting to grate on me—in fact, this is the classic stuff of law schools and state bar organizations. Granted, this particular state bar’s email thinly disguises the “giving back” theme with a self-interested twist: give back for your own good—it will reduce your stress! (No thanks. Practicing law creates stress, and I’ve done enough involuntary unpaid legal work this year. I’ll just sit on my couch and watch a bowl game instead.) But more to the point: new law grads are saddled with staggering debt, haven’t been taught how to file a motion let alone try a case, and, if they are lucky enough to find legal work, are unwillingly thrust upon an unsuspecting public—and now they’re supposed to worry about giving back? I think they’ve been drained of most of their life force already.
And second, while I can’t do anything about the legal job market and its approximately one legal job for every two law grads, I can do something about teaching grads and students how to practice law—at least in my field of criminal law. So, if a state bar wants to hire me to design a training program for newly licensed attorneys, or if a law school wants to hire me as a prof to design and teach a series of courses on criminal law, procedure, and practice, let’s talk. And don’t think of my salary as an additional “expense”—think of it as “giving back” to your membership or students.