by Laura Benitez Geisler
Are There Too Many Lawyers?
Are there too many lawyers in this country? I guess it depends on who you ask—a lawyer looking for work in a competitive job market, or a person in need of an affordable lawyer. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyer employment is expected to grow 8 percent through 2026. Despite this projected growth, it is anticipated the number of law school graduates will continue to outpace employment opportunities even with declining law school admissions.
What does it say about our values as a profession when there are not enough employment opportunities for law school graduates who want to work, while at the same time there are people in desperate need of legal representation who cannot find an affordable lawyer? Having legal representation is a crucial component of access to justice, especially when one’s family, finances, property, home, health, and safety are involved. Yet for too many, access to legal representation is beyond reach.
The Texas Access to Justice Foundation estimates less than 10 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Texans are being met. Keep in mind that to even qualify for legal aid an individual’s income cannot exceed $15,175 annually or $31,375 for a family of four. When you consider the poverty that exists in Dallas, home to SMU and UNT law schools (with Texas A&M right next door), the issue hits closer to home. The 2018 Dallas Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty Update reported that more than a quarter (28.8 percent) of households with children in Dallas live below the poverty level; more than half (54.2 percent) of all Dallas households have an annual income of $50,000 or less, while more than a quarter of all Dallas households (27.1 percent) have an annual income of $25,000 or less.
Inadequate legal aid resources for the poorest among us is not the only problem. Current market rates and traditional fee structures create a financial barrier for a significant percentage of the population who do not qualify for legal aid and who cannot find a lawyer willing to work at a rate they can afford to pay.
Rather than asking whether there are too many lawyers, the question we should be asking is “why are there not enough lawyers to provide equal access to justice for everyone?” The question we should seek to answer is “what can we do to change the inequities in access to justice?”
DBA Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering
With this question in mind, I am excited to announce the launch of a new program through which the DBA seeks to create a pipeline of lawyers equipped with the skills necessary to launch a financially sustainable practice that can meet the needs of a modest means clientele. DBA’s “Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering” is pilot project for recent law school graduates who have a demonstrated interest in serving the needs of a lower income clientele in a solo or small firm practice, but who need support developing the practical legal and business skills necessary to succeed.
The 12-month program will kick off this fall with an intensive three-day workshop that will provide practical instruction and training for starting a law practice. Thereafter, participants will meet regularly with instructors for in-depth guidance in areas of substantive law, professional responsibility, alternative fee arrangements, business development, and efficient law office management. In addition to a dedicated attorney program supervisor, participants will have access to mentors in various practice areas and multiple networking opportunities. Program participants will be selected following an application and interview process (www.dallasbar.org/incubatorprogram) and must agree to fulfill a requisite number of pro bono hours.
Legal incubators as an access to justice remedy is a relatively new concept. In the past 12 years approximately 60 legal incubator programs have been implemented nationwide with varying degrees of success. While the overall concept and goals for these incubators are generally similar, existing programs vary greatly in structure and substance. Most legal incubators are a collaborative effort among some combination of legal aid organizations, law schools, and bar associations. Few are solely operated by a local bar association, which may be why more than one person has described this project as an “ambitious” effort.
I do not disagree. But if not us, who? It may be an ambitious endeavor for a local bar association, but the DBA is not your average local bar. We have existing resources and programs to build upon that can be easily integrated into the incubator curriculum. We have an outstanding planning committee that includes, Hon. Royal Ferguson, Courteney Harris, Andrew Jee, Karen McCloud, Mary Scott, Frank Stevenson, Diane Sumoski, Robert Tobey, and John VanBuskirk, who along with DBA staffers Alicia Hernandez and Kathryn Zack are working hard to make this project a success. We have the support of AT&T, who through its general counsel, David McAtee, provided the seed money to launch this program, along with grants from the Texas Bar Foundation and Dallas Bar Foundation.
Most importantly, we have an obligation to do our part to seek solutions to difficult problems, especially in our own community where there are three local area law schools and a majority of Dallas households do not have sufficient income to access affordable legal representation. At a minimum, Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering will provide participating lawyers with quality training, support, and mentoring as they start their legal careers. Through the mandatory pro bono requirement, legal aid resources will be conserved for others in need, and young lawyers will gain experience helping someone who might otherwise go unrepresented. To me, that alone makes this ambitious undertaking worth the effort.
Ultimately it is my hope that over time this program will produce more lawyers in the community who appreciate the importance of equal access to justice for all, who are equipped to launch a financially sustainable practice that reflects those values, and will create a pipeline for the next generation of lawyers looking for ways to equalize access to justice.
For more information on the Entrepreneurs in Community Lawyering project, including how to apply, go to www.dallasbar.org/incubatorprogram.