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Spence Perry: The changing face of the law business

March 06, 2013|By SPENCE PERRY

The Bard recommended that all lawyers should be killed. Many Americans share that sentiment, at least to some extent. While the mass extermination suggested by Shakespeare is not going to happen, there is hope for those who feel overlawyered: Fewer lawyers are being made.

Law school enrollment is falling and has been for several years. The Law School Admission Council reports that applications have fallen from about 100,000 in 2004 to about 50,000 in the current year. Enrollment has fallen from about 50,000 students to fewer than 40,000, about where it was 30 years ago.

The result: Law schools are cutting faculty, extending tuition discounts and a few schools might be threatened with closure or merger.

The shape of legal education is also changing. There is a move to eliminate or to make more real world relevant the third year of law school, and a greater recognition of real world experience obtained in legal clinics is very worthwhile.

The reasons for the drop in law school interest are primarily financial and related to the changing face of the law business in the U.S.

Much routine legal research is being forwarded to firms overseas (India is a big recipient) or is being performed by paralegal teams in this country. Many legal tasks that used to be performed by lawyers only are now undertaken by firms that might employ a supervisory attorney but who use lay people to do most of the actual work. Firms that conduct real estate closings and issue forms for wills and business transactions and the like do much of this business.

In small cities like Hagerstown, the legal work has changed with the business face of the region. The loss of corporate headquarters has deeply cut the amount of business law practice. Major accident and malpractice claims are often referred to urban specialist firms that have the professional skill and financial resources to carry such cases to resolution. Large estates are formulated and often administered by out-of-town firms. Local residents often cite practice sophistication and confidentiality as reasons for going out of their home base for their estate plans.

This pattern is consistent with what is happening in other professions. Rural hospitals are closing as county populations fall and people go to urban medical centers for the latest and most expensive treatments. Big-box stores have driven small city retail to the wall. Even fields like entertainment, culture and sports have become more concentrated. The lawyer is not alone.

At a macro level, law has become a less attractive profession over the last 10 years. For many law students, the investment of up to $200,000 for a law degree was premised on earning a six figure income 10 years out. Those opportunities are not as available, and law school looks to be an increasingly dubious investment when you consider that most lawyers take home $50,000 to $70,000.

So, the profession is changing, the numbers it can attract are reduced and what it means to be a lawyer is being redefined. What is happening is impersonal and usually has nothing to do with the quality of the legal talent involved.

Some years ago, I had a call from a good friend who practices in a small city in the mid-Atlantic. We had discussed these trends at dinner the night before. He said, “Spence, what we were talking about at dinner — it happened this morning. Our hospital, which our firm has helped to found pro bono, and which has been a client for 50 years, called to say they decided to merge and take their legal work out of state. A local manufacturer called to say they were doing the same thing.

“And the worst thing, there was nothing but praise for our work — but nothing we could have done would have stopped this from happening.”

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.

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