A Tale of Two Lawyer Ratings Systems
Imagine a lawyer rating system that assigns lawyers different categories of grading and purports to provide an objective way to assess a lawyer and through "third party validation of ethics and legal ability provides that extra level of confidence that the right lawyer or firm has been selected." A ratings system that takes years of experience into account in issuing ratings and removes positive ratings where a lawyer has a negative disciplinary record. A ratings system that even generates enough profit to fund a fellowship. And a ratings system that includes some errors and omissions.
If you thought that the lawyer rating system that I just described would be the subject of class action lawsuits, you'd be wrong. But that rating system sure sounds like this one, which is the subject of a class action lawsuits. And indeed, many of the claims alleged in the class suit (which you can access here) would seem to apply to both ratings systems: such as complaints of arbitrariness of ratings or that the rating service makes deceptive and false representations that clients can rely on the ratings in choosing a lawyer.
So, one of these ratings systems is sued, while the other is not. And if you're wondering about the reasons for the differential treatment, I can think of at least one: consider the ratings of the class action's lead plaintiff by this ratings service and this one.
Note: for the record, I have criticized both ratings services for various reasons here and here and here. In my view, ratings systems aren't worth much because choosing a lawyer isn't like picking a restaurant or buying a house. So if we lawyers allow ratings system, we should explain that they're one of many, many factors in picking a lawyer. But more importantly, if we allow ratings systems, we must tolerate all systems; we shouldn't be able to pick and choose by filing class actions between those ratings systems that we want (because they grade us better) and those we don't.
Loan Forgiveness - Why Not For Solos?
This article, Debt Relief May Be In Sight for Lawyers (Chicago Sun Times 11/27/06) reports on the status of legislation proposed by Senator Dick Durbin back in 2003, that would grant student loan relief to public sector lawyers in the criminal justice system. From the article:
The average young lawyer from a private law school graduated with $78,763 in debt last year, according to the American Bar Association. The average graduate of a public law school owed $51,056. Durbin's office puts the numbers higher, with the average private law school graduate carrying $97,763 in debt, and public school graduates owing $66,810 . According to Murray -- who had $14,000 in debt when he graduated in 1983 -- the trend is forcing lawyers to leave the state's attorney's office, and persuading third-year law students not to apply. "It definitely weighs on me. I'm going to be paying it for the rest of my life," said assistant Cook County State's Attorney Jullian Brevard, who owes about $90,000.
Durbin's legislation would alleviate the burden of student loans, and help prosecutors and defenders offices attract and retain top lawyers, who often leave when "big bucks beckon" from private sector jobs (the Enron task force attorneys are a recent example of this phenomenon, most of whom fled government for private practice once their prosecutions had concluded) The Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act would pay up to $10,000 a year of the law school loans of any prosecutor or public defender. To qualify, a lawyer would have to commit to three years of service. Loan assistance would be capped at $60,000 per lawyer and would apply only to loans made through federal programs.
I've often wondered why lawyers going into solo practice don't qualify for loan forgiveness. Many new solos serve lower income populations (as I wrote here) or handle court appointed work similar to defenders' offices. Moreover, solo attorneys don't receive the same benefits as prosecutors or defenders, like health insurance or formal training, like trial bootcamp or CLE. Instead, they pay these expenses out of pocket. And because of student loan debt, some new solos feel pressured to run a volume practice, where they don't adequately serve lower income clients or to turn down lower income clients who can't pay the bills.
Many lawyers who accept prosecutor or defendants positions do so because they want the training, and are willing to make a financial sacrifice to get it. Loan forgiveness would make this choice easier, but I don't think that an extra $10,000 per year is going to give a lawyer set on earning $145,000 a year to think about a job with the Public Defender. By contrast, because fewer quality attorneys start their own solo practice, loan forgiviness would make a difference to those who choose to do so.
Small Firm Lawyer Has Big Ideas for The WV Bar
A small firm lawyer, Rob Fisher, has taken the helm at the West Virginia Bar as reported in this article. Based on what he has planned for his state, I sure wish they'd find more like him to lead the ABA. According to the article, Fisher plans to focus on small firms and solos and to address lawyer malpractice by devising a mentoring program. He also
wwants to create a handbook on starting a law firm, something I hope that MyShingle can help with. Also on Fisher's to do list is to create a "lawyer liason" system to elp people find out who does what, encourage small firms to develop succession plans for when they close their practices and consider offering unbundled service.
Solo Reported Missing
A Texas solo is missing, according to this Texas Lawyer article (4/20/06), State Bar of Texas Steps in After Solo is Reported Missing. According to the article,
Britt Hall, a Houston solo, has not been seen since Jan. 3, according to a private investigator who is searching for him. And State Bar officials say Hall has not been to his leased law office for months. While those close to the 41-year-old lawyer are worried about him, some of his clients are angry.
The State bar disciplinary commission has now taken over Hall's practice to protect his clients from any prejudice; it is not a disciplinary matter.
Some of Hall's friends and colleagues expressed that while he was a bright, capable lawyer, at times he seemed depressed. Some fear for the worst.
Let us hope that Hall has not been a victim of foul play. But even if Hall has only voluntarily left town to escape the rigors of practice, he's brought himself irreparable harm. I empathize of course, for it's so easy for solos to become overwhelmed by clients and the demands of law practice. And while I criticize the bar plenty, helping overwhelmed lawyers is one area where the bars truly provide a service. Call a lawyers' assistance committee of the bar if you feel practice is bringing you down. You can run from a troubling practice temporarily, but eventually, it will catch up with you.
Cheney's Victim Is A Famous Solo in his Own Right
Harry Whittington has been in the news recently as the victim in a hunting accident involving Vice President Cheney, but before this event, he'd earned a reputation as a famous solo in his own right. As this article from the Austin Statesman describes, Whittington's successful legal battles included ensuring that the state properly spent the proceeds of bond issuances and securing humane prison conditions for the mentally retarded. As Whittington himself described, he wasn't a do-gooder per se, but a lawyer committed to making sure the state followed the law and to protecting people's constitutional rights. And his career also exemplifies just how far a solo can soar.
NH Limits on Small Claims Court Won't Help Lawyers
David Giacalone of f/k/a writes this post about a New Hampshire bill that would reduce the jurisdictional limit in small claims court in New Hampshire from $5000 to $2500. Lest anyone think that this kind of legislation is a lawyers-relief bill in disguise, I can assure you that it is not. A case valued at $2500, particularly of the sort commonly brought in small claims (contract disputes, lost earnings, individual attempt to collect a debt) are rarely worthwhile for a lawyer to take or a client to bring. (do the math - it's going to take a lawyer at least 3 hours to gather facts, draft a complaint and file suit, which is $450 at a rate of $150 an hour, plus at least $100 for filing fees. So you're out $550 at the outset, even if the lawyer doesn't bill another minute on the matter. For a $2500 matter, that's 20 percent even before you start). So in the absence of small claims court, most of these claims simply won't be brought at all.
IOLTA Pioneer (and Shingler) With A Killer App
Remember back in the dotcom days, when everyone's goal was to develop that killer app, a computer program that is so useful that people will invest in a particular machine or hardware simply to run that program? In law, a killer app is harder to come by, yet Henry Zapruder, who died earlier this week of brain cancer (Wash. Post, 1/27/06) helped create one, by bringing the concept of IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts) to legal practice in our country. According to the article, since their inception, IOLTA funds have raised more than $1 billion for legal fees for impoverished clients. Reading on, I also learned that though Zapruder eventually became a senior partner at biglaw firm Baker and Hostetler in 1998, for nine years prior to that, he was a shingler with a firm he'd formed, Zapruder & Odell.
What's your killer app for our profession, the thing that will improve it measurably, the idea that will bring real meaning to concepts like "client service" and "equal justice" and "access to law"? Because we need those killer apps now more than ever, before our profession kills itself.
Solo Defends Blogger Anonymity
Via this post at Greatest American Lawyer, I learned about the recent Delaware Supreme Court ruling that an elected official who's been criticized by an anonymous blogger cannot use a defamation suit to compel disclosure of the blogger's identity wihtou substantial evidence to prove the claim. (See New York Times story). But what really excited me was learning that David Finger, a Delaware solo whom I met years ago at a Solosez lunch was responsible for the anonymous blogger's victory. It's further reinforcement that the work that we solo and small firm lawyers do, representing individuals and small companies and generally, ordinary people, carries with it the enormous potential to change and define the law for all of us.
More on Katrina Related Small Firm Impacts
As a follow up to this earlier post, it's been three weeks since Katrina and solo and small firm practitioners are starting to contemplate the consequences and plan for the future. This article, Many Small Law Firms May be Gone, Adrian Angelette, reports on small firms' biggest problem - loss of clients. From the article:
The task of restarting a law practice will be particularly daunting for one-lawyer offices or small firms whose clientele was made up largely of New Orleanians who evacuated. Many lawyers will also have to cope with files and equipment destroyed by wind or water. "A lot of lawyers lost their clients. I'm afraid many solo practitioners and small firms will be forced to leave the state," Baton Rouge Bar Association President Greg Bodin said. "There are probably a number of small firms that � have already moved once. How can they afford to move again?"
More Katrina News
"I'm worried about the ones that don't have friends. Some of the solos and real small outfits might not know other folks in other parts of the state," Neuner (Bar President) said.
Solo practitioners and even firms with 10 or 20 lawyers who've had their offices flooded can't send bills or get checks from clients, Neuner pointed out. "How do they pay employees?" he asked. Their client files and computers, in many cases, have been destroyed by floodwaters.
The bar is reaching out, with efforts to find housing and office space for displaced attorneys and has also started a fund to collect money to assist. And on that topic, Kevin O'Keefe of LexBlog is offering to help firms set up at no cost a free weblog to facilitate communication with clients and employees.