When American Bar Association president Robert Hirshon was preparing for his presidential year, he went looking for unconventional ways to attack the challenge of providing justice for all citizens.
Hirshon, the luncheon speaker at The Florida Bar board retreat last month, said he found them: the crushing debt that many law students are saddled with when they graduate and what he called the “tyranny of the billable hour.”
While those might not be obvious factors in improving access to justice, Hirshon, a Maine attorney, said he found them to be dominant factors, especially with young lawyers.
He noted that in the 1950s, over 12 percent of those who graduated from law school took some sort of public service job, but more recently that had dropped to 3.3 percent.
“We are facing a public service squeeze, and unless we do something about it, we are going to have an entire generation who is going to be unable to make a contribution,” Hirshon said.
When he graduated in 1973, Hirshon said, law students might have had a debt of a few thousands dollars — not enough to make a difference in a starting private sector job at $15,000 or a legal aid job at $10,000.
“People now graduate with $80,000 to $90,000 of debt. They have an incredibly crushing burden of debt, and they don’t know how to get out of it,” he said, adding he recently met with a group of Tulane law students and everyone had a debt exceeding $100,000.
Starting private sector salaries can now reach $140,000 for law student graduates — plus bonuses, Hirshon said, while salaries for public service jobs have not kept pace.
He told of one student who wanted to take a $28,000 public service job in environmental law. But he couldn’t afford it because his $115,000 student loan debt would require $10,000 a year in payments.
One of Hirshon’s commissions will study ways to improve loan repayment and loan forgiveness programs for new lawyers who take public service jobs. He said he hopes to make proposals both at the state and national levels, including duplicating for lawyers the federal program that repays doctors’ educational loans when they practice in underserved rural areas.
The second commission will look at how the emphasis on the billable hour has affected the legal profession and possible alternatives.
Law students may not realize the burden they face when accepting high paying jobs that carry with it the requirements to bill 2,300, 2,400, or 2,500 hours a year — and many hours they work will not count toward that total.
“They can’t do it forever. They can do it maybe for a year or two years,” he said of that frenzied work pace. “If you bill those hours, you don’t have time for pro bono, you don’t have time for the bar association, you don’t have time for life. And that is what is happening.”
The ABA recently did a study that showed lawyers who had been in practice for three to four years are “leaving the practice at an alarming rate,” Hirshon reported. “Those lawyers were telling us if this is what it was all about, they were gone.
“I think we’ve got the billable hour tail wagging the dog. We work under a tyranny of billable hours. We’ve got to create a different dynamic.”
He noted the billable hour came about 40 to 50 years ago after the FTC prohibited fee schedules commonly imposed by bars around the country. The ABA commission will study alternatives, and its members include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who has expressed concern about falling public service performed by lawyers, as an honorary member.
Hirshon appeared only a couple weeks after taking over the ABA leadership from Tallahassee’s Martha Barnett. He said he was eager to come because of his mutual interest in legal access issues with Florida Bar president Terry Russell.
He noted that in his foreign travels, particularly in Eastern Europe and countries that were in the former Soviet Union, the American lawyer is seen as a hero and the person responsible for ensuring justice for everyone. That’s a message that needs to be repeated at home, he said.
“I can think of no other issue that is more important to the fabric of our society, to the continuation of our democracy, than justice for all,” Hirshon said. “Why be a stakeholder in a system of government that does not provide you with justice? What we are doing is really underpinning and providing a foundation for the system of law.”
Reprinted with permission of The Florida Bar News.