J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of Law Publicist Communications, an ALR/PRA, Incorporated agency. Law Publicist Communications is a public relations agency also offering coaching and consulting. Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations, marketing and practice management. Nick shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.
Attorneys in transition should consider public service. I attended The John Marshall Law School 2011 Freedom Awards and Distinguished Service Awards Luncheon where the 2011 Freedom Award Honoree, Justice Joseph Gordon, praised and called for more young lawyers, desperately needed in public service.
Justice Gordon addressed a growing concern: Access to the legal system is becoming a luxury for the rich and the largest segments of our population are grossly underserved. Economic conditions have impacted the legal industry and have driven legal fees and attorney salaries out of the reach of middle and working class America. Justice Gordon pointed to the opportunity for new lawyers to engage in public service to address the legal needs of those who cannot afford private legal counsel.
Public legal service offers many benefits to the lawyers who want to practice law as a vocation and serve the community. Tuition reimbursement programs are offered by several law schools that tap into programs administering loan forgiveness for qualified applicants, most often, public sector lawyers. The quality of life working in a legal aid clinic, for example, might be an improvement over the private practice insofar as many legal aid clinic attorneys make it home for dinner with their families. In my experience, lawyers in public sector jobs seem to be more active in community organizations and government.
Justice Gordon offered several examples of accomplishments in the drive to battle the skyrocketing price of legal work. Statutory provisions providing for legal fees and contingent billing allowances help the private attorney serve a client who cannot pay hourly fees out of pocket. Alternative dispute models including mediation, collaboration and arbitration help litigants attempt resolution of their matter in a cost-effective and sometimes less adversarial atmosphere. As more lawyers develop creative alternative billing methods there will likely be new positions attracting young lawyers to the alternative to traditional, private hourly billing, law practice.
The traditional, private hourly billing, law practice has driven many potential clients to seek public and less expensive legal options, out of necessity. I have a friend in a neighboring city who has operated a solo family law practice for 25 years. She told me a few years back that the new case filings one month were 85 percent pro-se. All over, pro-se litigant court programs are running at capacity. I know another lawyer in a western state who earns a humble hourly wage writing orders for the court, to benefit the pro-se litigants. These would-be clients are at the local library, researching on Westlaw and pouring through law blogs, trying to learn how to navigate the system sans-counsel.
Think Justice Gordon is on to something? Think the stories I tell are anomalies? Think you have impenetrable job security in the traditional, private hourly billing, law practice? At the end of the day we chose what we do with our knowledge, skills and abilities. I suggest you consider public sector law practice. Personally, I see the practice of law as a service vocation, and some of the happiest lawyers I know go home at night feeling good about their jobs and their contribution to an otherwise underserved segment of their communities.