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Category: General

The collapsing economics of solo legal practice

[ 94 ] 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?

[ 21 ] 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

[ 137 ] May 25, 2015 |

Arizona and Higher Ed

[ 59 ] 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

[ 60 ] 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

[ 34 ] 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

[ 62 ] 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.

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…

The Worst Kind of Liberalism

[ 151 ] 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!

Culinary Modernism

[ 138 ] May 23, 2015 |

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Image from The Florentine Codex, the 16th century study of Aztec customs by Bernadino de Sahagún

Although I cringe at the term “Culinary Luddites,” you really need this Rachel Laudan article, originally published in the wonderful Gastronomica, on the need to embrace culinary modernism and reject a romanticized food past that is completely ahistorical, colonialist, and classist. Laudan shows how people around the world from the beginning of their ability to do so have sought to create processed foods that are tasty and digest well. The idea that there is this wonderful past of pure food simply is wrong. In the U.S. case, read Harvey Leverstein’s Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, for a history of American food. You’ll discover that basically American food was terrible, then became slightly less terrible, and over time has improved. That means that the food we might well make fun of today from fifty years ago was actually significantly better than what came before. The idea that our grandparents or great-grandparents or some faraway ancestors had this great food tradition of delicious healthy food is pure mythology. They were baking possums though. Creating a food regime that assumes hard culinary labor also means that we will be assuming that the poor, probably women, will be happy spending their entire lives cooking for families. For most women, that’s not how they want to spend their lives. An excerpt:

Meanwhile, most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home­cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year.

She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been.

She could at least buy our bread from the bakery. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day — one third of their waking hours — kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas. Not until the 1950s did the invention of the tortilla machine release them from the drudgery.

If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.

If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, restaurants, or on our travels. We let our eyes glide over the occasional references to servants, to travel and education abroad in so-called ethnic cookbooks, references that otherwise would clue us in to the fact that the recipes are those of monied Italians, Indians, or Chinese with maids to do the donkey work of preparing elaborate dishes.

We may mistake the meals of today’s European, Asian, or Mexican middle class (many of them benefiting from industrialization and contemporary tourism) for peasant food or for the daily fare of our ancestors. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multinational corporations bent on selling trashy modem products — failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market, foreign restaurants to eat at, and new recipes to try.

We always want to believe in a simpler, purer past. That past does not exist. That’s certainly true for food. This doesn’t mean that the modern food regime of heavily processed, high-sodium foods is great. We can do better. But better doesn’t mean relegating women to the kitchen 12 hours a day (“cough” Michael Pollan), bemoaning the world’s poor from having choices, or fetishizing kale (or açai 5 years ago or rice cakes or whatever it is tomorrow). I’m not a historian of food per se, but I write about a food a lot and read about it a good deal. At this point it’s very hard for me to take any sort of food movement as anything other than the fad of the moment. After two centuries of American food faddism, I simply do not believe that gluten-free diets will still exist as a major food movement in twenty years. Too many “real medical conditions” have come and gone over the history of medicine. That probably makes me sound like a jerk, but I don’t see how we read food history and come to a radically different conclusion. I’m not saying people don’t feel discomfort. I am saying a huge percentage of the world’s rich people have not become allergic overnight to the same foods people have eaten for thousands of years. Whether it’s yogurt enemas, graham crackers, Atkins diet, veganism, locally sourced, or gluten free, this stuff comes and goes with the seasons.

Also, just because I like it, here’s another great old Gastronomica essay, “Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.”

Boycott Driscoll’s Berries

[ 42 ] May 23, 2015 |

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The global berry industry is probably not one you think about much but you should. The terrible conditions of food production around the world is something that I cover quite a bit both here at in Out of Sight. The food production system is as hidden from you as apparel or plastics or oil, but with the difference that because food affects our bodies so profoundly, there is more interest by consumers to act when they find out about exploitation. One thing consumers can do is to boycott Driscoll’s berries.

While Driscoll’s is a family-owned company, it’s no mom-and-pop operation. According to its website, over 40,000 people are involved in its berry production worldwide. The company has a code of conduct for its suppliers, called the “Promise for Workforce Welfare,” which includes obeying minimum legal requirements and avoiding egregious labor violations like human trafficking and conditions “posing immediate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is committed to hiring suppliers that “show a sincere commitment” to such principles.

But Bonifacio Martinez questions whether those requirements are enough. Martinez picked strawberries and blackberries destined for Driscoll’s boxes for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farmworker movement that erupted last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mexican state of Baja California. Thousands of farm laborers picking multiple crops stopped work for nearly two weeks, demanding higher wages and legally required benefits, among other protections.

“The principal demand is for [growers] to actually respect the workers’ rights,” says Martinez. He wants them to honor labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just “dead words.” Those include health benefits and freedom from sexual harassment.

Many of the San Quintin protesters are indigenous people from some of Mexico’s poorest states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero. Indigenous people make up more than half of Mexico’s agricultural workers.

The striking pickers initially wanted wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then lowered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.

Protests turned acrimonious when demonstrators threw rocks at government vehicles and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Workers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway. By April, the strike had effectively ended after growers signed agreements raising wages 15 percent—far less than the pickers demanded.

The leaders of the movement rejected the meager increase, saying the unions that signed those agreements, which are affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power for nearly three-quarters of the 20th century and has strong connections to many unions throughout the country, do not represent workers. The workers continue protesting even as many have returned to the fields.

A note here: PRI-associated unions are not real unions that have actual worker voices. They are fully part of the party structure and serve the party, not workers. A major issue within the Mexican labor movement is trying to undermine these “unions,” which often are part and parcel of the same grotesque corruption that flows throughout the whole PRI. So to some extent this is a matter of convincing workers that they can get more by defying the agreements, which is possible.

There’s a U.S. side to this as well.

Driscoll’s responded swiftly to the BerryMex fracas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dispute that escalated while the San Quintin protests raged: a bitter labor fight in Burlington, Washington.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), which says it represents over 400 berry pickers, has been locked in a labor struggle with Driscoll’s supplier Sakuma Brothers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boycott against Sakuma berries and its largest customers, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. On March 24, it doubled down on the boycott when the fair trade advocacy organization Fair World Project sent a letter to Driscoll’s, signed by nearly 10,000 consumers, asking it to suspend buying from Sakuma Brothers until the dispute is resolved. The signatories pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.

FUJ’s list of complaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, firing and retaliating against workers for organizing and hiring guestworkers from Mexico to replace FUJ’s members. The H-2A guestworker program Sakuma Brothers participated in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough workers domestically. FUJ says it had plenty of willing workers, but that Sakuma Brothers used guestworkers to avoid hiring back FUJ’s members.

“The only thing we want is a fair contract for both of us,” says FUJ president Ramon Torres.

Sakuma Brothers denies that FUJ represents the berry pickers, calling them “outside agitators” who “have attempted to fabricate the impression that this is a worker movement.” Danny Weeden began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s campaign is hard to understand.

Outside agitators. Can we just assume that anyone who uses that term has just declared themselves a bad human being? And hard to understand? Workers are poor, live in terrible camps, and don’t like being fired for organizing. This does not seem hard to understand.

Notably, these workers in both Washington and Baja California are largely indigenous people from southern Mexico. We usually think of Mexicans as a homogenous group of people, but that’s really untrue. Indigenous people are routinely exploited within Mexico including at the workplace, where they are paid less and toil at the hardest and most dangerous jobs. That gets repeated in the United States, as large number of poorly paid field workers are not only not native English speakers but also not native Spanish speakers. There are cases of indigenous Mexican children in U.S. schools being labeled as developmentally disabled because they don’t respond to their Spanish speaking teachers. But they don’t speak Spanish so why would they? They speak Zapotec or Mixtec or languages with even smaller number of speakers.

This also passes my boycott test, which is that it is called by workers and their representatives (in both Mexico and the U.S.) as opposed to consumers personally boycotting to feel good about themselves by, say, buying second-hand clothing and then saying they have done something about sweatshops (a position rejected by the Bangladeshi workers movement among others). Driscoll needs to take responsibility for its suppliers. Like we need to hold Walmart and Gap responsible for its suppliers in the apparel industry (as well as food for the former), we need to hold Driscoll responsible as well. Ultimately that has to happen by a number of ways, including reforms to U.S. labor law making unionization easier, greater inspections of farms in the U.S., and international labor standards that would not allow berries produced under the awful labor conditions so common for fruit and vegetables for the American market. Oaxacan indigenous peoples in Baja California and Washington, Bangladeshi workers in sweatshops, slave labor on shrimp boats in southeast Asia–all of these workers are part of a system of global exploitation for western companies, all of which happens far away from the eyes of consumers. And that’s how the companies want to keep it.

Less Than Compelling Arguments For McDonald’s Labor Practices

[ 69 ] May 23, 2015 |

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How could the nation have survived such a horrible outcome?

It’s a good thing for pop music, honky-tonk feminism, and Canadian tax collectors that McDonald’s pays lousy wages. If the food stores paid their frontline workers enough to survive on, Shania Twain would still be working there, a shareholder claimed at the company’s annual meeting this week.

The unidentified man, who said he’d been a McDonald’s investor since 1990 according to BuzzFeed News, used a Q&A session to rattle off a list of successful celebrities like Twain, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Hollywood star Sharon Stone who had worked in a McDonald’s earlier in their lives. “I’m sure if they were making $15 an hour, they’d still be working at McDonald’s,” he said, as thousands of current McDonald’s workers protested outside.

No Shania Twain? Where would horrible country radio have been in the late 90s without her? Nashville would have had to find some other cookie cutter to sing vapid songs that make a mockery of a once great tradition of music (and one that is still great on the margins).

God, we should force McDonald’s to raise its wages to $15 just to prevent future Shania Twains from reaching country music stardom.

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