Today, at a relatively sparsely attended session at its annual meeting in San Francisco (the session did take place at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon), the American Bar Association released its 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession Report and offered a blunt panel discussion on the findings.
Among other things, this first of its kind Report attempts to summarize a number of recent trends of the profession in such areas as diversity, women, legal education, technology and more. The Report was produced by the ABA Media Relations and Strategic Communications Division and drew upon statistics from the ABA, the federal government and various non profit groups. The plan is to update it annually.
Its true, as ABA President, Bob Carlson, pointed out in introducing the panel, “the profession evolves very slowly.” But the big take away from the Report: there are a number of troubling things going on with our profession that simply can’t wait for slow evolution.
Diversity? Not So Much
A whopping 85% of the profession is still white. 85%.
For example, while the Report’s introduction points out that the profession changes every year, much of the story contained in the Report is unfortunately the same. For example, a whopping 85% of the profession is still white and mostly male. 85%.
Minorities compose only some 8% of the partners in law firms, roughly the same as in 2016 and not a whole lot better than 10 years ago. 80% of our federal judges are white. Almost 75% are men. That’s an incredible lack of progress for a key metric.
It is true as Patricia Lee, chair, ABA Diversity and Inclusion Center and panelist, noted: there has been some diversity growth in each year but it isn’t enough. Says Lee, “law firms and others hiring lawyers can’t rely on the excuse that they would hire diverse candidate if we could find them because diverse candidate are there.” The problem, according to Lee, is too many people hiring lawyers apply traditional and narrow hiring criteria which limits the consideration of diverse candidates. Lee also believes that we need to find cheaper pathways into law school and for its completion to reduce debt (see below) and encourage diverse candidates.
But We Have More Women Lawyers Than Ever, Right?
39% of U.S lawyers today are women. This sounds pretty good until you realize that 10 years ago women made up 31% of the profession; not a lot of progress.
Women compose less than 20% of law firm partners just as they did over 10 years ago.
And even worse: women compose less than 20% of law firm partners just as they did over 10 years ago. This despite the fact that 10 years ago women composed close to 45% of total law school enrollment and over 50% today. With this many women graduates, its reasonable to wonder why we don’t have more women partners.
Roberta (Bobbi) Liebenberg, former chair, ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and another panelist labeled this failure as “really distressing”. She frankly stated, “its very clear that culture and structure and implicit bias in law firms” keep women partner numbers from being on par with their male counterparts. Not surprising given the fact that we are still 60% male.
Its very clear that culture and structure and implicit bias in law firms” keep women partner numbers from being on par with their male counterpart
And some of the numbers cite by Lienbenberg that were not in the Report tell the real story. For example, 63% of women are perceived as not being committed to their careers (only 2% of men carry this burdensome label). Moreover: 67% of women believe they have been denied access to business development activities, male equity partners on average make 27% more than women and 93% of women in law firms believe their firms are not actively supporting diversity despite male belief to the contrary. Worse: over 50% of women report unwanted physical contact and 75% report unwarned jokes or comments. Its no wonder, says Lienbenberg, that women leave the profession in droves. This is intolerable for a profession that claims it committed to justice.
Keep in mind the incredible growth in the profession the last 20 years; there are now over 1,300,000 lawyers in the U.S. Yet despite this growth, the diversity of the profession appears to be roughly the same.
Income? Not for Some
Another interesting fact: lawyer wages and income have reminded relatively constant since 2009, showing only slight increases.
The Report also reveals what most of us would have assumed: public service lawyers are grossly underpaid with civil legal aid lawyers being paid on average the least of the least. Its no wonder we have an access to justice problem.
Yet another problem: law school admissions and applications are starting to rise but…the average cumulative debt for those graduation is now $145,500 compared to only $82,000 in 2000. Think of that: you start out practicing law in the hole close to $150,000. Such a staggering amount of debt discourages many from the profession in general and public interest law that pays so little in specific.
Part of the problem is, of course, as Daniel Rodriguez, chair, ABA Center for Innovation and former dean and current professor of Northwestern Law School put it, the fact that many law schools “charged exorbitant tuition that out performed the rate of inflation by any measure.” Part of the problem is we require three full years of law school to become a lawyer: Rodriguez noted its time for a frank and honest discussion about whether we still need to require 3 years of law school to practice.
Oh and Pro bono? 48% of lawyers do none. Zero. 6 years ago, that number was 20%. Not a good sign.
Its not surprising that younger people no longer consider law a meaningful profession.
As Rodriguez dryly observed, its not surprising that younger people no longer consider law a meaningful profession.
Mental Health: We Are in Trouble
And here’s some really disturbing news: 28% of lawyers report suffering from depression. Almost 20% report severe anxiety. Over 10% of lawyers report having suicidal thoughts.
28% of lawyers report suffering from depression. Almost 20% report severe anxiety. Over 10% of lawyers report having suicidal thoughts.
How do we deal with this? 21% of lawyers report problem drinking; 32% of lawyers under 30 report problem drinking. This compares to 6.4% of the general population. 25-35% do lawyers facing disciplinary proceedings report some mental illness or addiction issue.
That’s not good: all of these numbers are substantially higher than those reported by the general population.
For whatever reason the panel didn’t discuss these very disturbing findings, yet they go to the heart of our professional problems and we damn sure better start finding why we have this mental health crisis.
What about technology? The report doesn’t get into too much detail. It does note that 23% of the firms report having suffered a data breach of some kind which for a number of reasons is probably underreported. Some 34% of the firms reportedly have cyber insurance, a number that has been gradually rising over recent years as data breach becomes more common. But this number is still low given the sensitive, confidential and valuable information we have.
76% of lawyers say their firms have a social media presence but only 38% of lawyers report that their firms have social media polices. Some 35% of lawyers say their firms use Facebook for marketing purposes. LinkedIn, however, remains to most popular platform for lawyers by far. 70% of the lawyers who use social media say they do so for career development and networking purposes.
10% say their firms are using artificial intelligence tools; 36% think these tools will become mainstream in the next 3-5 years. Given the state of AI tools and platforms available, these two numbers are either low or reflect a lack of understanding or definition of AI. Which itself is a problem.
We also have become a much more mobile profession: 70% of lawyers report working remotely; the average lawyers says she telecommutes 40 days a year. While this data can be questioned based on the subjective interpretation of words like telecommuting, I think it’s obvious many of us enjoy the freedom that our mobile devices give to our working lives. The panel was asked but artfully dodged the question whether this could mean traditional law firms will shrink in the future.
Many of the numbers in the report suggest a profession that is teetering on the edge of disaster. Non diverse, out of touch with and unable to meet the legal needs of so many, a profession beset with mental health issues and problem drinking
What Does It All Mean?
Many of the numbers in the report suggest a profession that is teetering on the edge of disaster. Non diverse, out of touch with and unable to meet the legal needs of so many, a profession beset with mental health issues and problem drinking. But if I look for good news it’s this: at least the ABA is reporting it and, according to Carlson, it plans to update the Report annually.
We now have in front of us data, data that Lee admitted has been needed for a long time and which reveals the magnitude of our problems. And our problems are not just the reluctance to use technology or be innovative that many of us focus on. They are much more and much deeper than that.
But the ABA has stepped up and revealed what we are up against. It’s now up to all of who care about our profession to do something about it.