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Bar News - May 21, 2014

Book Review: A Dignified Discussion of the Legal Market: Is the Bubble About to Burst?

The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis
By Steven J. Harper
Basic Books Publishing, 2013, 274 pages

Author Steven Harper brings to the legal profession’s internal monologue a rarefied background and sense of restraint that enables him to discuss a difficult topic with dignity.

Harper uses stark statistics and poignant anecdotes to paint a picture of a profession and an academy that has sacrificed long-term intangible cultural values in favor of short-term quantifiable profits. By avoiding the sort of vitriol that often attends the topic (while nonetheless dropping a few caustic barbs when necessary), he makes a convincing case, charges those responsible with greed and neglect, and sketches some optimistic suggestions on how those who practice law could change the field’s course.

In chapters discussing law schools, Harper accuses universities of increasing law school enrollments as profit centers for funding non-legal departments within the university. He dissects U.S. News & World Report ranking methodologies and argues that they have little worth in assessing actual educational value, but nonetheless have become the yardstick by which prospective law students generally make their decisions.

Readers may be outraged when learning most law schools continue to resist providing truly meaningful employment statistics, and that relevant bar authorities are excruciatingly slow in forcing greater openness from the schools.

While Harper does discuss confirmation bias (hearing what one already believes) that leads thousands of students to enroll in law schools from which they will graduate into a marketplace where their ranks vastly outnumber the available jobs, he seemingly places more blame on law schools for exploiting this sort of naïvete than he places on those students for exhibiting it in the first place. And while he rightfully points to overwhelming tuition increases that have far outpaced inflation and produced a generation of graduates with crippling debt, he puts little blame on students who disregard serious risks by signing up for that debt without asking whether they will ever have a realistic chance to repay it.

As to law firms, Harper focuses primarily on big firms. Using examples of large firms that collapsed suddenly and catastrophically from the 1980s to 2012, he points to several factors eroding firm culture in favor of short-term profits for current partners: high leverage ratios; rampant merger frenzies; client hording; unprecedented high numbers of lateral moves; tiered partnerships; abandonment of lockstep equity partner compensation; high attrition rates; and worship of the billable hour. Propelled forward by American Lawyer ratings, much as schools have been propelled forward by U.S. News & World Report ratings, larger firms have ceased to function as genuine partnerships with institutional values. Instead, Harper argues, large firms are culturally akin to large corporations in which top executives will jump ship as soon as they are made sufficiently lucrative offers elsewhere, and little cultural “glue” remains to hold firms together.

Harper proposes initial solutions. His recommendations for law schools include reductions in class size, eliminating the third year, allowing discharge of educational debt in bankruptcy, making schools responsible for repaying debt on which graduates default, and greater circulation of actual employment statistics. He proposes that firms eschew billable hours, large mergers, high leverage ratios, associate attrition as standard practice, tiered partnerships, income gaps among equity partners, and perpetual equity partnership into old age. Though conceding that these are bold aspirations, Harper at least suggests them, and for that he deserves credit.

This book is a sober analysis of deeply-ingrained structural problems with the legal profession and legal education. The reader is left wondering, however, whether trends Harper describes of blind confidence among prospective law students and self-serving management among the largest of large firms can ever be reversed, or whether the bubble that he documents will have to burst before the profession learns the hard lessons the hard way.

Kevin J. Powers

Kevin J. Powers was admitted to the New Hampshire bar in 2006 and currently prosecutes criminal appeals and white collar criminal trials at the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office in Canton, Mass. He lives in Foxborough, Mass., and loves New England small towns.

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