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A new outlook for lawyers

This week, as the newly moved-in staff at Concordia University School of Law showed visitors around their swanky downtown building, the New York Times was running another grim story about the job market for lawyers.

The law school, Boise’s first, is opening its doors to students in August. It’s a project that’s been in the works for years, even before the Portland-based Concordia started hiring Boise staff in 2010. But it’s coming to fruition at a time when attending law school just doesn’t seem to make the same kind of sense it did ten or twenty years ago.

The law school’s leaders are well aware of this. Law school tuitions are rising even as law salaries are dropping and jobs are disappearing. This week’s New York Times story concerned the plight of Dewey & LeBoeuf, the white-shoe firm that advised its partners last week to start looking for new jobs.  These stories are not uncommon.

But Concordia’s leaders say some special circumstances are in their favor. Boise, the state’s largest city, doesn’t have a law school now, though the University of Idaho College of Law, 330 miles to the north, does offer a third-year program  in Boise.

Meanwhile, Boise’s market for lawyers isn’t as saturated as markets elsewhere. According to the U.S. Census, only four other states (Kansas, Arkansas, and the Dakotas) have fewer lawyers per capita than Idaho does. While New York has 20 lawyers per 10,000 residents, Idaho only has six per 10,000.

There are also other, more subtle, factors at work. Concordia Law School Dean Cathy Silak noted that Boise’s overburdened public defender system will benefit from the infusion of students into the local workforce. The students – Concordia is aiming for about 70 in its first class – are required to do 50 hours of pro bono work during their three years in law school. She expects some of that to be research and other work for the public defenders, freeing those lawyers up to help more clients.

And perhaps most importantly, there’s a national conversation underway about how the practice of law is probably going to have to change to adapt to new economic realities. A newly hatched law school like Concordia has the agility to adapt to those changes.

One likely change: lawyers just aren’t going to be guaranteed a six-figure income at a big firm. Or any job at all. Big firms are shrinking. Some send their document work, once the province of first-year associates, overseas or to contractors. Law graduates will likely head in increasing numbers to government jobs, non-profits, or small practices.

Diane Minnich, the executive director of the Idaho Bar Association, attended a regional conference this week on the very topic of the changing profession. She thinks self-help law centers – and other means for people to do their own lawyering – will push lawyers to move from billable hours to flat fees.

It seems to me that one of the biggest changes to prepare for is the oversupply of lawyers. If there really is one, shouldn’t the price of legal services go down? Neither Silak nor Minnich seem to think the market’s going to make that happen. But both also seem hopeful that the coming changes in the practice of law will make law services more available to more people – including the middle class.

To me, that sounds like the price of law services is going to go down, even if nobody’s quite ready to say it.

“Clearly we have to make legal services more affordable – but how that’s going to happen, we have no idea,” Minnich said. “That’s something we have to talk about as a profession.”

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.