By J.D. Smeallie,
President, Boston Bar Association
By J.D. Smeallie,
As the President of the Boston Bar Association, I am lucky enough to represent the BBA at a variety of events. Perhaps my favorite is the annual swearing-in ceremonies for new lawyers. With a couple hundred newly-minted lawyers sitting on the floor of Faneuil Hall, and family and friends overflowing in the balconies, Maura Doyle, the Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court, regales the audience with the history of Faneuil Hall (Daniel Webster stood on the very same stage), the origins of the oldest attorneys’ oath in the United States (yes, Maine, you copied ours), and why she wears a morning coat (she is not a part-time undertaker). A combination of excitement, history, humor, pride and optimism pervades the room. For that moment, all is good in the legal profession in Massachusetts.
Yet as I sat on the stage recently at one of these ceremonies, I wondered how many of those about to be sworn-in would begin their careers as practicing lawyers. With the “new normal” at major law firms resulting in smaller first year classes and the economy still playing havoc with the job market in general, I knew many would still be looking for a position.
Much has been written lately about the glut of unemployed lawyers and what can be done about it. With only 56.2% of 2012 graduates from ABA-accredited schools able to find full-time legal work within 9 months of graduation, several law schools have set up incubators to ready recent graduates for solo practice careers. One such local incubator is Northeastern University’s Justice Bridge Legal Center, which is still in the planning stages. Justice Bridge describes itself as “designed to address two core challenges confronting the American justice system: shrinking employment opportunities for recent graduates under existing law firm structures, and the legal system’s growing inability to serve consumers of modest means who cannot afford high hourly rates but fail to qualify for pro-bono assistance.”
As its name suggests, Justice Bridge will seek to address the so-called “justice gap” – the unmet need for civil legal services. We look forward to see how this project develops as far too many people appear in court these days without a lawyer. Some do not qualify for civil legal aid or, if they do qualify, there are not sufficient resources at our civil legal aid agencies to help them. There are also people who decide to go unrepresented, but who could pay something for a lawyer, just not the hourly rates charged by lawyers in larger firms. How then do we connect lawyers who want to practice law and need the business with potential clients who are willing to pay for services at some reduced level?
The BBA’s Lawyer Referral Service is active in helping to bridge the justice gap with its Reduced Fee Panel. Clients who call the referral line, meet the income guidelines and do not have a case that might be accepted on a contingent fee basis, are matched with attorneys who have agreed in advance not to charge more than $85 per hour for their services. The Reduced Fee Panel is designed to assist people whose income is too high for free civil legal aid, but is still below 300% of the federal poverty level. In 2012, the Reduced Fee Panel program connected more than 1,500 clients with reduced fee attorneys.
Doug Lovenberg of Lovenberg & Associates in Boston has taken on a number of reduced fee cases through the BBA. As Doug describes it, “most of the clients are working people, who have nowhere else to turn and would have to go it alone if they could not find counsel at affordable rates. We generally quote them modest flat fees for matters involving housing, auto issues and family and probate matters. They are happy to have guidance and are satisfied with the pricing. For our part, we are building our client base and keeping our lawyers busy. It is working for us and for our clients.”
Perhaps there are ways to expand upon the Reduced Fee Panel concept by connecting more underutilized lawyers with those who need a lawyer, but cannot afford a high hourly rate. One way to do it is to expand access to and education about Limited Assistance Representation, which provides opportunities for lawyers to handle only parts of cases. As the American Bar Association has noted, LAR gives lawyers “the opportunity to obtain clients who would otherwise represent themselves” and at the same time reach “an untapped market and generate additional income.” The BBA has provided training sessions to enable solo and small firm practitioners to become certified to provide LAR services in both the Land Court Division of the Trial Court and the Probate and Family Court. We look forward to doing more.
The BBA’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts will be exploring these and other ideas to solve the justice gap. If you have thoughts about what can be done, please let me know. Supply and demand are there. We just need to figure out how to connect them.