Thursday, October 23, 2014

The lawyer job market

The scam blog and law school transparency movements have exposed the JD as a flat-out bad decision for many (if not most) would-be law students.  That is, many graduates won’t find lawyer jobs, and those who do might not be able to pay back the debt they had to incur to graduate.  That will lead many new law grads to consider hanging out their own shingle, i.e., self-employment.  And most of these new solo practitioners will have to take whatever work that comes through the door, which typically includes criminal defense, juvenile, and traffic cases.  (Sorry, new solos: maritime law, sports law, space law, and international law will be nothing more than fond law school memories.)  But how lucrative is this bread-and-butter type of work?  To answer that question, I will quote an email I recently received advertising an “advocate counsel” position in Racine County, Wisconsin (located between Milwaukee and Chicago and just north of where I practice).  Here’s the scoop:

Pay: “$25,000 paid in monthly increments of $2,083.33.”

Benefits: None.  You are an “independent contractor” and “will not receive any Racine County employee benefits.”

Expense reimbursement: None.  “Training, travel expenses for training[,] and legal materials are not provided or reimbursed[.]”

term: You are obligated for one calendar year; however, Racine County is not similarly obligated.  You will “serve at the pleasure of the Racine County Circuit Court judges and the appointment can be terminated at any time, for any reason[.]”

But wait, how many and what type of cases will you have to take for that king’s ransom of $25k per year without benefits or even expense reimbursement?  Here comes the kicker:

Workload: Attorneys may be assigned any type of felony [including homicide], misdemeanor, juvenile, criminal traffic, and probate cases and any other action as the court orders . . . It is estimated that there will be about 70 – 80 assignments in 2015 per attorney.”

Now, a few random comments:

First, if you want to do a thorough job and not worry about malpractice lawsuits, it is nearly impossible for a new solo to take 80 cases in a year.  (Personally, I would never take that many cases, even with fourteen years of practice under my belt.)  But let’s say that you do take the 80 cases — you are, after all, what Paul Campos calls a special snowflake.  Even if you are lucky enough not to be assigned any serious felonies, and just five of your 80 clients want to go to trial, and your other 75 appointments go amazingly smoothly, and you never have to wait several hours for any of your cases to be called, your pay on a per-hour basis could still easily be driven down to sub-fast-food-level wages (but without the benefits).  Good luck paying for your travel, training, legal materials, malpractice insurance, bar dues, rent, other office expenses, living expenses, and your student loans.  (It’s no wonder that so many new JDs in Wisconsin lead miserable, anxiety-filled lives.)     

Second, while you are busy “serving at the pleasure of the Racine County Circuit Court judges” — thats funny, I thought we were supposed to serve our clients — those same judges will be pulling in $128,600 plus the generous benefits (including pension) that are specifically excluded from the $25,000 compensation deal from which you can be terminated “at any time, for any reason.”

Third, this job posting shows the real value that we place on lawyers.  This pay scheme proposed by the legal profession completely denigrates the legal profession — or at least a significant segment of it.  Worse yet, this proposal was presumably authored with input from the Racine County judges themselves (who retain the option of firing you “at any time, for any reason”).  This demonstrates that we lawyers often don’t watch out for our own.  There is often little professional courtesy and no legal fraternity in this business we call law. 

Fourth, unfortunately, I predict that numerous lawyers will submit their applications for this job.  This posting is nothing new; it comes up every year, and every year they probably receive more applicants than there are openings.  This says a lot about supply and demand in the legal employment market. 

Finally, do you still think you can pull this off, new JD and soon-to-be solo practitioner?  Here’s the really bad news: you probably won’t even get the job.  The posting states that the job will be awarded based on multiple factors, including whether an attorney is certified by the state public defender (presumably to handle serious felonies, including homicides), and has “a proven record of high quality work and reliability.”

So go out and get some high quality legal work experience (perhaps by working for free, as our state bar recommends), and then apply next year.  Good luck!


  1. Wonder if advocate counsel does too good a job,while he be terminated?

  2. Good question, Walter. I would think that there's definitely an incentive for judges to hire lawyers who are trial averse, and fire lawyers who clog up the court system. Of course, technically it's the client's call on whether to go to trial, but we both know that some lawyers are very adept at convincing their clients to take deals, regardless of whether the deal is a good one.

  3. As a new lawyer, I would like other highly-qualified lawyers to do my work for me while I reap the rewards. Of course, "paying" a fellow JD a "living wage" would cut into my "profits." The Wisconsin scam seems like a good way to exploit my classmates who have not yet found their place in the legal market. But is there any way I can have my colleagues pay me to do my work?

    Here's how it would work:
    1) Start a firm
    2) Desperate JD hires me as an "independent contractor," pays me $2k+ a month to "gain legal experience."
    3) Desperate JD gains said legal experience by doing work someone else paying me lots of $$$ to do.
    4) If said desperate JD does good work, tell them it's nothing special; suggest they need more experience. Maybe 6 months or more.
    5) $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
    6) If government comes after me, use massive amounts of money to defeat them and their underpaid staff. Outsource legal work if necessary.
    7) Retire.

    Other than the fact that it is immoral, indecent, and inhumane, this seems to be a pretty phenomenal plan for young lawyers. And it is totally not a Ponzi scheme. Just ask my lawyers.

  4. Thank you for highlighting the abysmal job market for attorneys, in addition to the continuing scam operation that is modern legal education. We need more attorneys to speak out. The legal education industry has financially destroyed too many lives, which sadly includes mine.