A State Bar task force will address the professional challenges facing new lawyers, who are both the future of our profession and our association.
Vol. 85, No. 2, February 2012
One of my tasks as State Bar president is to address new lawyers at the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s lawyer admission ceremonies. At the carefully choreographed events in the court’s august chambers, I dutifully challenge the new lawyers to fulfill the letter and spirit of the lawyer’s oath, and I welcome them into a noble and learned profession. I am proud to be a lawyer, but I am growing anxious about the future of the profession, particularly in view of the unprecedented challenges facing these new bar members. I am mindful that the public can be fickle and that their trust and confidence in the justice system fleeting, but I am not possessed by apocalyptic thoughts. So, I resolve to proactively address questions of confidence in the quality of legal services and professionalism by focusing on the concerns of our new lawyers and by providing the training, mentoring, and support they need to succeed in practice.
The experience of many new lawyers today is utterly different from my own. When I graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1976, I was admitted to the bar with no student debt, had a year of intensive trial experience under the student practice rule, and began practice surrounded by seasoned lawyers who served as my mentors. How different it is for many young lawyers admitted in the past five years! The job market for lawyers is at a 40-year low. Many large firms are either eliminating internships, delaying start times for new associates, or both. The economic reality facing large law firms in a fiercely competitive environment no longer permits substantial investments in training and mentoring of new associates. Public sector hiring is stagnant as all levels of government struggle with budgets. At the same time, law school tuition, enrollment, and student debt are at all-time highs. It is not unusual for a young lawyer entering this dismal job market to have an outstanding student loan burden of more than $150,000.
To find employment, some observers estimate that 25 percent of our new State Bar members will leave Wisconsin; another 25 percent will simply leave the practice of law for other work within five years. Some will hang out a shingle and practice as a solo, taking whatever legal work they can get. Statistics tell us that these inexperienced solo practitioners face a high risk of business failure and a higher than average risk of professional malpractice and disciplinary complaints. I nevertheless believe that this generation of young lawyers possesses extraordinary commitment to public service and professionalism, a commitment that the State Bar needs to nurture and support.
Without effective State Bar leadership in collaboration with our law schools and local bar associations, the public’s confidence in the profession’s ability to deliver high-quality legal services will diminish. I charge a task force to examine the array of professional challenges facing our young lawyers, as well as their training and mentoring needs, and develop an action plan for the State Bar’s response. Leading this effort as cochairs are attorneys Sherry Coley and Art Harrington. I will charge the task force to present its preliminary report to the Board of Governors at its June meeting.