LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEAD

By lowering the passing grade from 75% (fixed by the Rules) to 72.5%, the Supreme Court unbelievably jacked up the numbers of unemployed lawyers. It failed to see the economic and social cost of more lawyers into the mainstream in the face of the now sobering economic downturn.

Who needs a litigation or a legal fix in these days of want? With the unreined in judicial process that we have, throwing into the fray a thousand more lawyers betrays insensibility and ignorance in social engineering. What we need are nuclear engineers. We need lawyers like a hole in the temple. In Japan, an increase of 100 lawyers annually is a cause of concern. And they have a population double that of this third world country!

Only in the Philippines do we have an average of 20 years to terminate a court case. Delay is endemic and the exercise of discretion becomes a commercial endeavour.

The Office of the Ombudsman, for instance, is notorious in the delay department. Its officials openly peddle the desired results among the protagonists of pending cases before it. Talk about life style checks which agency is in charge of checking the financials of these so-called graft busters? Asked by the Supreme Court to expedite the indictment of those responsible for the poll automation ruckus under the unlamented Ben Abalos, the Ombudsman thumbed the nose of the High Court by dismissing the criminal cases and yawned that it found no evidence of criminal irregularity.

The production of annual barristers should be a concern to the High Court. While it pays lip service to requiring lawyers the mandatory tithing for indigent litigants in the form of new rules in this direction in order to keep the members of the bar in good standing, the Supreme Court chastised lawyer Leonard de Vera for spearheading a move to oppose the withdrawal of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines’ petition before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of hiked filing fees (as an indirect tax to sourcing salary adjustments of members of the judiciary) under RA 9227.

With 1,310 more lawyers in circulation, these “heat-seeking missiles” as Max Soliven famously called them, need more high paying cases rather than do an Atty. Leonard de Vera.

Public interest lawyers are an endangered species. As the Supreme Court can not act on its own, it needs citizen lawyers as its antennae in bringing ripe and justiciable controversies with social, legal, etcetera ramifications, or we allow petty social architects in reinventing our lives as we know them. But faced with prohibitive court costs, and without viable cases for subsidy, these new lawyers might as well resort to puerile editorial or blog writing just to bring home their point.

In just 3 years, the SC has piled up new 3,000 lawyers into the mainstream.

While we wallow with glut of lawyers, the New York Times reported:

The economic downturn is hitting the legal world hard. American Lawyer is calling it “the fire this time” and warning that big firms may be hurtling toward “a paradigm-shifting, blood-in-the-suites” future. The Law Shucks blog has a “layoff tracker,” and it is grim reading. Top firms are rapidly thinning their ranks, and several – including Heller Ehrman, a venerable 500-plus-lawyer firm founded in 1890 – have closed.

The employment pains of the legal elite may not elicit a lot of sympathy in the broader context of the recession, but a lot of hard-working lawyers have been blindsided, including young associates who are suddenly finding themselves with six-figure student-loan debts and no source of income.

Leading firms have historically avoided mass layoffs, concerned that their reputations would take a hit. But some have been putting those inhibitions aside, perhaps calculating that the stigma of pushing out their colleagues has faded. Law firm managers and bar associations should be looking for more creative ways to deal with the hard times – like reducing pay for both partners and associates to save jobs, as a few firms have begun doing.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the legal world may be inspired to draw blueprints for the 21st century.

The changes are likely to begin with compensation. Years ago, law firm starting salaries were not that different from government or public-interest jobs. But the gap has become a chasm. First-year salaries at top firms are around $160,000, compared with $48,000 to start for state and local prosecutors and $40,000 for legal-services lawyers. New associates often earn more than the judges they appear before.

The downturn will probably rein in salaries at the high end. Top firms are already under pressure to lower the $160,000 starting salary; one industry-watcher says it could fall as low as $100,000. And fewer firms will feel the need to pay the top salary.

Lower pay should mean that associates will not need to work the grueling hours many have been forced to. And it will mean less pressure to go into private practice for law graduates who would rather do something else.

Clients are also likely to benefit – and consumers, since legal fees are built into the cost of almost everything. Even before the downturn, big-firm clients, led by the Association of Corporate Counsel, were pushing to phase out the billable hour – which can go as high as $1,000. Tight corporate budgets will give clients more leverage to push to pay by the project or for successful outcomes.

For years, law school tuition rose along with big-firm salaries. Between 1990 and 2003, the cost of private law schools rose at nearly three times the rate of consumer prices. The average graduate now leaves with more than $80,000 in debt. In one survey, 66 percent of students said debt prevented them from considering government or public-interest jobs.

If the downturn is prolonged, law schools will need to keep tuition and other costs in check so students do not graduate with unmanageable debt. More schools may follow the lead of Northwestern, the first top-tier law school to offer a two-year program.

Law schools may also become more serious about curriculum reform. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released an influential report that, among other things, urged law schools to make better use of the sometimes-aimless second and third years. If law jobs are scarce, there will be more pressure on schools to make the changes Carnegie suggested, including more focus on practical skills.

They may also need to pay more attention to preparing students for nonlegal careers. Law graduates have always ended up in business, government, journalism and other fields. Law schools could do more to build these subjects into their coursework. (ADAM COHEN, With the Downturn, It’s Time to Rethink the Legal Profession, Published: April 1, 2009)

Leave a Reply