Washington Lawyer

From the President: PMAS Links Groups of Unaffiliated Lawyers

From Washington Lawyer, May 2014

By Andrea Ferster

D.C. Bar President Andrea Ferster“How is it that we have so many people badly in need of a lawyer with no one to turn to, and at the same time, find that thousands of young lawyers are unemployed and underemployed? The access to justice paradox seems to defy the most basic laws of supply and demand.”[1]
                                              —James Silkenat
                                                 ABA President

The latest news just in from the law schools is that barely half (56.2 percent) of their 2012 graduates were in jobs requiring bar passage, only a slight improvement over the previous year, when 54.9 percent of all 2011 graduates had full-time, long-term legal jobs nine months after graduation.[2]

This dismal statistic has prompted much self-examination in the legal profession. The ABA has led the charge with a response that focuses both on our system of legal education and on initiatives to create opportunities for new lawyers.

To address the first prong, the ABA Task Force on Legal Education examined ways in which the academy can and should respond to the perfect storm facing recent law students: skyrocketing tuition, staggering debt, and dramatic changes in the market for jobs available to law graduates.[3] And the ABA’s Task Force on Legal Access Job Corps is looking at innovative ways to connect these lawyers with the thousands of low- and moderate-income people who cannot afford to retain counsel.

The D.C. Bar already is ahead of the curve. For the past six years, the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service (PMAS) has helped Bar members to navigate the new market realities by offering practical training on how to open and manage an independent law practice. PMAS also has created opportunities for lawyers to develop the kinds of one-on-one professional relationships that can be crucial to success. 

PMAS’ signature program is its Basic Training and Beyond: a free, two-day, interactive, practical program for D.C. Bar members that provides the tools, ethical guidance, and information needed to get a law office up and going in the District of Columbia. Basic Training is the brainchild of Dan Mills, the assistant director for PMAS, who is also a former solo practitioner. Dan proposed the program in 2008 after he began fielding more and more calls from lawyers who had left law firms as a result of the economic downturn and were looking to start their own law practices.

Basic Training explores subjects that are rarely discussed in law schools such as how to develop a business plan, draft a fee agreement, open Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, and market yourself—all in conformity with the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct. Since 2008, more than 2,050 Bar members have attended the training, which was awarded the 2011 E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award by the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism. There is now a multiweek version of the class—“Successful Small Firm Practice”—that offers a more in-depth exploration of various issues involved in starting a small firm.

As entry-level hiring at law firms contracts, PMAS has become even more important. PMAS offers noon-time and after-work networking events, including a monthly networking dinner and lunch, and a series of “Lunch and Learn” brown bag programs at the Bar. Through these programs, lawyers can access practice tips ranging from how motions are heard in Family Court to how to access the court’s lawyers’ lounge.

Through the relationships developed in Basic Training and other events, PMAS is building a community of lawyers who are helping each other. Mentoring relationships are developed, advice is shared, and client referrals are exchanged. This community fills a deep void, providing the kind of personal guidance that would otherwise only be available in a firm or other organization.

PMAS offers other important services to Bar members, including law office assessments, a lending library of books and articles on practice management issues and sample forms, and an advisory hotline. PMAS maintains a library of video interviews with lawyers who have successfully launched independent practices.

Dan Mills, along with Senior Staff Attorney Rochelle Washington, stays connected with Basic Training alumni, reviewing their business plans and giving them advice on how to identify their own market or practice niche that allows them to distinguish their services successfully.

While PMAS’ programs, services, and networks provide much-needed support to the increasing number of lawyers turning to solo or small firm practice, some lawyers still feel at a loss when it comes to finding clients.

Eventually, these fledgling law practices will adapt to where the demand exists— providing affordable legal services to our low- and moderate-income neighbors. Indeed, solo practitioner Steven Krieger recently has started a Google group for lawyers offering “low bono” legal services (dclowbonoattorneys@googlegroups.com). 

The ABA recently announced the availability of catalyst grant funding for innovative projects designed to address the dual purpose of utilizing recent law school graduates to address the unmet legal needs of poor or moderate-income persons.[4] The time is ripe for our legal community to seize this unique opportunity.

Reach Andrea Ferster at aferster@railstotrails.org. 


Notes
[1] James Silkenat, Trouble in Paradox: Our Nation’s Unmet Legal Needs and Unemployed Young Lawyers, NYSBA Journal, Sept. 2013.
[2] Mark Hansen, Barely Half of All 2012 Law Grads Have Long-Term, Full-Time Legal Jobs, Data Shows, ABA Journal Law News Now, Mar. 29, 2013, available at bit.ly/11rvCIY.
[3] Information on the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, available at bit.ly/1gy9z4g.
[4] Information on Catalyst Grants, available at bit.ly/Ofu4FF.