I refuse to accept the legal profession as merely a service industry. Attorneys provide more to clients, the public, and democracy than just a service. But the profession has monetized itself to make attorneys sometimes more akin to salesman who peddle wares than professionals who advocate justice. It’s for this reason that now, perhaps more than before, the legal profession must recognize those attorneys who remain stalwart in their public service.
The legal profession, by tradition, is one of public service. Thirty-three of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, for example, were lawyers. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, delivering the Gauer Distinguished Lecture in Law and Public Policy in 2000, illuminated what he called the legal profession’s four traditional public service roles: “the lawyer as unpaid attorney, as law reformer, as statesman, and as teacher.” In doing so, Justice Breyer recalled the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s admiration that America’s legal profession “had created a ‘natural aristocracy.’” That tradition of public service was an engine that established the bedrock of 20th century jurisprudence.
But this tradition of public service, some argue, is surpassed by the legal profession’s treadmill approach to billing hours and turning profits. The Atlantic ran a recent article in which the authors argue the legal profession’s undue emphasis on performance metrics is contributing to the industry’s moral collapse. It starts with law schools, which attract top students and justify high tuitions by appeal to their “rankings” — arguably an inapposite measure of scholastic capacity. To boost their rankings, law schools encourage graduating students to accept high-paying jobs with major law firms over, for example, low-paying nonprofit work. Those high-paying jobs, in turn, require the production from associates of more billed hours. The cycle repeats itself when law firms recruit mostly among top-ranked law schools.
More notably, the authors of The Atlantic piece report, is the profit per partner, or PPP, measure that many law firms use to rank themselves within the legal industry. Publication of PPP statistics created an urgency among law firms — which otherwise counted themselves successful — to generate greater profits in comparison to others. The culmination of this history is the substantial degree to which the billable hour influences attorneys’ work: attorneys, to succeed, must make every minute count in dollars and cents. This constant attention to money makes public service ambitions that may have initially attracted people to the industry vanish.
The legal profession shouldn’t need to incentivize its members to provide public service; by Tocqueville’s measure, it’s an essential duty. And purelymonetary reasons should not be attorneys’ sole motivator. But reality is not that ideal. For now, and perhaps to help infuse the a renewed desire for public service among the bar’s youth, Washington’s Young Lawyers Committee is giving a Public Service Incentive Award to young lawyers.
The Young Lawyers Committee created the quarterly award to encourage new and young lawyers to engage in public service activities. The award is for licensed attorneys admitted to practice in Washington who are in good standing and qualify as a young lawyer (a young lawyer is any WSBA member under the age of 36 or in his or her first five years of practice, whichever is longer). The award’s criteria are fluid, but some considerations include an applicant’s involvement in pro bono activities as described in RPC 6.1, such as WSBA, ABA, or local bar association activities; volunteering with public service programs; or writing blog posts for the NWSidebar or articles for NWLawyer. Recipients will be awarded one free WSBA CLE of their choice.
Eligible attorneys can apply online here. The next deadline is June 23, 2014.
For young lawyers especially, the legal profession’s future is an open question. Will it continue down a service industry path? Or will tomorrow’s lawyers be more like those fierce advocates who risked their lives to found a nation?