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The collapsing economics of solo legal practice

[ 39 ] May 25, 2015 |

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Benjamin Barton, a professor at the University of Tennessee Law School, has generously some shared tax data he’s collected on the earnings of lawyers in private practice. Prof. Barton’s new book, GLASS HALF FULL: THE DECLINE AND REBIRTH OF THE AMERICAN LEGAL PROFESSION will be published next month by Oxford University Press. Here’s OUP’s summary:

The hits keep coming for the American legal profession. Law schools are churning out too many graduates, depressing wages, and constricting the hiring market. Big Law firms are crumbling, as the relentless pursuit of profits corrodes their core business model. Modern technology can now handle routine legal tasks like drafting incorporation papers and wills, reducing the need to hire lawyers; tort reform and other regulations on litigation have had the same effect. As in all areas of today’s economy, there are some big winners; the rest struggle to find work, or decide to leave the field altogether, which leaves fewer options for consumers who cannot afford to pay for Big Law.

It would be easy to look at these enormous challenges and see only a bleak future, but Ben Barton instead sees cause for optimism. Taking the long view, from the legal Wild West of the mid-nineteenth century to the post-lawyer bubble society of the future, he offers a close analysis of the legal market to predict how lawyerly creativity and entrepreneurialism can save the profession. In every seemingly negative development, there is an upside. The trend towards depressed wages and computerized legal work is good for middle class consumers who have not been able to afford a lawyer for years. The surfeit of law school students will correct itself as the law becomes a less attractive and lucrative profession. As Big Law shrinks, so will the pernicious influence of billable hours, which incentivize lawyers to spend as long as possible on every task, rather than seeking efficiency and economy. Lawyers will devote their time to work that is much more challenging and meaningful. None of this will happen without serious upheaval, but all of it will ultimately restore the health of the faltering profession.

I hope to discuss Barton’s data and conclusions in more detail once I’ve had a chance to read the book. Here I’m going to focus on some striking numbers regarding the changing economics of solo legal practice.

Solo legal practice represents a particularly crucial aspect of the economics of the legal profession, because it’s by far the single most common job for lawyers to hold. 75% of all practicing lawyers are in private practice, and half of these people are solo practitioners (the other half is made up of partners and associates in law firms of all sizes, along with lawyers who work for businesses and other non-government entities). This means nearly two out of every five practicing lawyers are solos. (Given this, the fact that almost nobody in legal academia knows anything about solo practice would seem to be suboptimal, at least from the perspective of a professional training school).

Barton’s data reveal that the average (mean) compensation of solo practitioners has declined sharply over the past 25 years:

Earnings of solo practitioners

These numbers are particularly striking when juxtaposed with the change in average (mean) wages of American workers (Note that these figures are for all employees, including part-time workers. They include employer contributions to employee pension plans). This graph represents the percentage relationship between average solo practitioner earnings and the average wages of all American workers:

percent of average salary

Note that these are mean, not median, earnings. Median wages for all US workers (full-time and part-time) in 2013 were about $28,000, and I would expect a similar percentage discount between mean and median solo practitioner earnings, since the most successful solos are among the very highest earning lawyers. This suggests the median solo practitioner is making less than $35,000 per year. Which, given what has happened to the cost of law school over the past 25 years, is another problem:

Public law schoo tuitionPrivate law school tuition

How Much Would You Sacrifice to Win the Game of Thrones?

[ 5 ] May 25, 2015 |

It’s another Monday, so my usual column is up at Salon.com – this time, I examine the theme of sacrifice, and how far the main contenders in Westeros are willing to go to achieve their ends.

FYI: the podcast will be a bit late this week due to the fact that I’m currently on a train and can’t talk atm, but SEK and I will be recording tomorrow.

 

Memorial Day Links

[ 34 ] May 25, 2015 |

The Battle for the Soul of the Labour Party

[ 42 ] May 25, 2015 |

Mayor_Quimby

The public narrative of the cause for 2015 and the way forward has already been framed by the right wing of the party:

It failed in small-town England but advanced in London and big cities. It continued to lose working-class votes but bolstered its middle-class support. How to weave together a winning electoral coalition out of such fragmentation is far from straightforward. But you’d never know that from the response of Labour’s leadership candidates. Taking their cue  from Blair and a string of former New Labour luminaries, all have fallen in – with more or less enthusiasm – behind a Blairite agenda.

The problem with Ed Miliband’s leadership, they intoned from the start, was that it was “anti-business”, put a “cap on aspiration”, threatened rich people with punitive taxes, and failed to accept that the last Labour government “overspent” in the runup to the crisis of 2007-08.

However, the numbers are not on the side of the “modernisers” (a misnomer, given the modernizers are refighting the battles from 1992-1994).  John Curtice (a well known political scientist in the UK) suggests the problem with 2015 was in part the loss of support on the left:

 Britain’s most respected opinion pollster has warned Labour its chances of winning a majority at the next election verge on the “improbable” and that blaming its defeat on a shift away from Blairism is “wholly inadequate”.

Setting aside his pessimistic assessment for the future as I haven’t had the opportunity to explore those numbers at all (but will not be improved by the near certainty of a boundary review during the current Parliament) I do agree with the suggestion that a shift to the right would not enhance the electability of the party. Anecdotally, campaigning on the doorstep over the past two years, I haven’t once heard somebody tell me what the Labour Party needs is more Blairism. I have heard from many former Labour supporters who lamented that the party “has abandoned people like me”. I’ve also heard a lot of anti-immigrant vile, which as an immigrant myself are always my favorite moments (said without sarcasm) because invariably they don’t include me as a target for their life’s frustrations.

While Curtice focuses solely on the debacle in Scotland, the nearly 1.2 million Green Party voters also need to be included in any assessment:

If Greens had backed Labour in Derby North, Croydon Central, Bury North, Morley and Outwood, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Brighton Kemptown, and Telford, it would have been enough to deny David Cameron a majority, and Ed Balls would still be in his job. That’s just 2984 votes that would have needed to change hands.

Plymouth Sutton & Devonport is my constituency.  The Labour Party candidate, Luke Pollard, lost to the incumbent Conservative MP by 523 votes.  The Green Party candidate received 3401 votes.

I’m not arguing that the 2015 loss was the fault of the Greens or the SNP.  I am arguing that the Labour Party needs to make itself a more appealing alternative for those voters, one that combines addressing progressive issues and concerns with the chance of actually forming, you know, a government.

It’s Labour’s fault that many former Labour supporters voted for what they perceived to be a more attractive alternative. Embracing 1994 all over again will not get them back.

Arizona and Higher Ed

[ 49 ] May 25, 2015 |

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Terrific article. The grim conclusion about this totally proactive new paradigm:

Ultimately, Arizona shows two ways that universities can respond to government defunding. They can become country clubs, or they can become “knowledge enterprises” that rely on the Internet to deliver education to enormous, geographically diffuse student bodies. Either way, the gap between the type of education available to children from affluent families and that offered to everyone else is going to grow. There was a moment in American history, says Newfield, when “the kind of thing that the Bush family could take for granted at Yale became possible at U. Michigan for somebody whose father was a middle manager.” That moment is over.

[Erik] See also Andrew Hartman’s essay on the Republican war on the humanities.

Open Thread for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Season 5 Episode 7

[ 48 ] May 24, 2015 |

So…after last week’s rather controversial episode, let’s discuss what HBO had in store for us tonight.

As always, beware of spoilers.

Landmark Birthdays

[ 30 ] May 24, 2015 |

Happy 42nd birthday to 210-game winner Bartolo Colon! And, oh yeah, this guy.

Doesn’t the follow-up to “Catfish” write itself, really?

What You Can Do About Nail Salon Exploitation

[ 60 ] May 24, 2015 |

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Let’s say you care about the exploitation of nail salon workers. Rather than just decide to change your habits and not get your nails done or do them yourself, which does nothing to alleviate the workers’ plight, what can you do. Let me direct you to two similar statements. First, our own valued commenter Karen24:

1. Don’t use acrylic nails. Most of the health problems have been traced to the really nasty chemicals in fake nails, especially the particulates. So, just don’t.

2. Don’t go to the super cheap salons. Here in Texas, $15 is about the minimum for a manicure and $25 for a pedicure. Anything below those numbers should be suspicious.

3. Look around the place first. Does it look clean? Is there an overwhelming chemical smell? Most states — except apparently New York — require salons to be ventilated. Complain to the state board if the place is stifling. Cleanliness is a matter of customer safety, but also indicates that the salon owner is invested in keeping the place open and cares enough to follow cleaning rules. A clean salon is also an indication that the owner is hiring experienced and licensed operators. Having a license is no guarantee that the worker isn’t being exploited, but it does mean she has completed the state requirements and can get a job someplace else pretty easily. (One of the problems with the New York system is its use of apprentices, who have to work at one salon until they complete enough hours to qualify for an individual license, meaning the operator can’t leave without losing all her accumulated hours.)

4. Notice the names of the operators and notice whether the same ones are at the salon over a period of time. High turnover usually indicates that the salon owner is doing something wrong.

5. Be aware of your state’s regulatory bodies and file complaints if anything looks off. I’m not aware of any state that doesn’t have a labor board or agency regulating cosmetology, and all of ‘em should have a website that instructs consumers how to file complaints. (New York’s is terrible; but it does exist.) Note that in most states the labor board and regulatory authority are different agencies. File a complaint if anything looks like a problem. There is of course no guarantee that your complaint will lead to anything, but it is absolutely certain that nothing will happen if you don’t complain. Texas at least accepts anonymous complaints and will investigate them.

6. Tip generously, in cash.

Personal grooming is a delight, and the democratization of little luxuries like mani/ pedis is a genuine achievement. We can, with little effort, make sure that the people who provide these luxuries get to enjoy them as well.

Second, Liza Featherstone:

Support workers’ groups. For example, Woodside-based Adhikaar organizes in Nepali-speaking communities and has been educating workers and consumers on health and safety problems faced by nail aestheticians. The group presses for policy changes on its own and as part of the NY Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. Adhikaar’s website explains how to donate or volunteer — its fundraising gala is on June 4, so there is plenty to do.

Pressure politicians. Contact your City Council representative and ask her (or him) to support a bill introduced earlier this month by Public Advocate Letitia James to improve the health and safety working conditions of nail salon employees.

Contact Cuomo’s office, too, and praise him for responding so quickly, but pressure him to do more than create a task force. Adhikaar and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health are calling on the governor to increase the number of health and safety inspectors dedicated to this industry.

Demand nontoxic salon products. If your neighborhood salon won’t switch to nontoxic polish and remover, take your business to any number of organic, toxin-free salons around the city.

Tip big! Adhikaar advises at least 20%, but remember that tip theft is also common. Tip in cash and directly into the hands of the person who helped you, so the boss won’t steal it.

And, don’t forget that this isn’t the only exploitive industry in our fair city.

Of course, Featherstone’s advice is largely New York based, but the principles are universal. Engaging in any of these actions will play a small role in improving the lives of workers, certainly much more so than withdrawal. Each of us can only do a little bit, with a few exceptions who can do more, but collectively we all matter if we are aiming for the same or similar goals. This is what consumer support of workers’ movements is about.

RIP John and Alicia Nash

[ 39 ] May 24, 2015 |

Wow.

John Forbes Nash Jr., the Princeton University mathematician whose life story was the subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” and his wife of nearly 60 years died Saturday in a taxi crash on the New Jersey Turnpike, police said.

Nash was 86. Alicia Nash was 82. The couple lived in Princeton Junction.

The Nashes were in a taxi traveling southbound in the left lane of the New Jersey Turnpike, State Police Sgt. Gregory Williams said. The driver of the Ford Crown Victoria lost control as he tried to pass a Chrysler in the center lane, crashing into a guard rail.

Memorial Day weekend Sunday Funnies: Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War

[ 9 ] May 24, 2015 |

Capture

You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a taste:

Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War” is a remarkable achievement both as a work of history and visual literature, providing a broad overview of the complex circumstances that gave rise to the bloodiest conflict in American history, while simultaneously making those deaths meaningful by capturing fleeting moments amid the slaughter in panels so beautifully wrought as to beggar description.

The book is a collaboration by Penn State historian Ari Kelman, who won the 2014 Bancroft Prize for “A Misplaced Massacre,” about the unecessary 1864 slaughter of the Cheyenne at Sand Creek, and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, whose 2012 graphic novel “Trinity” worked as both a detailed history of the building of the first atomic bomb and a philosophical meditation on its impact on humanity.

In short, it would be difficult to imagine a creative team better suited to capturing the tragic magnitude of the Civil War on an intimate and harrowing scale. Its engagement with actual history is on par with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s engagement with fictional history in “Watchmen.”

If I still taught visual rhetoric, I could easily see pairing the two books and discussing the way in which, for example, Kelman’s stunningly concise summaries of the troop movements and Washington politics impact the reader’s experience of the pages that immediately follow.

Consider, for example, what Kelman told me was his favorite sequence in the book, which begins with an update on the war’s progress via an ersatz edition of the Harrisburg Bulletin…

Airpower and the Pivot

[ 4 ] May 24, 2015 |
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“F-15 wingtip vortices”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At the Diplomat, I talk a bit about the flexibility of airpower in context of the Pacific Pivot:

More broadly, the extent of the campaign indicates that what airpower theorists like to call the “inherent flexibility of airpower” cannot resolve the major resource issues associated with the pivot (or, if you prefer, the rebalance). Implicit in the rebalance is the idea that the United States can still use airpower, and long range naval strike, to solve security problems around the world, even as it focuses the bulk of its efforts on managing China.  If fighting a group as small as ISIS requires a long-term commitment of U.S. power, with attendant demands on allies and infrastructure, then the logic underpinning the pivot begins to unravel.  This is especially the case if the United States cannot escape the political pressures that continue to draw it into Europe and the Middle East.

 

The Worst Kind of Liberalism

[ 147 ] May 23, 2015 |

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The worst kind of liberalism is responding to a story of oppression by deciding to do your own nails instead of going to a nail salon so you as a consumer can feel guilt-free. Never mind that such an action actually takes money out of a worker’s pocket. It’s not about changing the system or placing pressure on the state to intervene. Nope, this can be solved by me taking care of myself. Now that’s activism!

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