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Rearranging the Chairs on Titanic’s Deck: NYC Bar Association Creates Task Force to Study Legal Market

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It’s everywhere in the news that the New York City Bar Association is forming a brilliant task force to study the legal job market. According to Carey Dunne, the president of the NYC bar association, the ostensible job of the task force would be to assess whether the weak job market is primarily a result of temporary factors, or whether it reflects a more permanent shift in the law industry. One thing is sure, as Dunne says, “I’m sure there’s no simple answer.” But as a commenter on the Wall Street Journal post mentioning the news indicated caustically, “the committee’s recommendations will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

New York City Bar Association creates task forceMr. Dunne must be feeling that as the new president of the NYC Bar Association he must do something, and to make certain that nobody blames the august body for inaction, what better step could be there, than to launch a task force ‘to study' the legal job market? The task force has been given a year to study the market and come up with their findings – so for the next one year, things can be at peace.

Neither the ABA nor the bar associations apparently seem have any accountability to law students and displaced lawyers beyond task forces, and studies, and recommendations. Steps that invariably lead to nothing more than - well you know it - rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

This is not to say that we do not appreciate the attempt made by the bar associations of New York. Both periodically and in a learned manner, they try to address issues of lawyers. But again, unless studies and recommendations bear fruit, they amount to nothing more than rearranging the chairs on the deck of ….

But who says that the studies and recommendations do not yield fruit? Not us. And definitely not those who pay various fees of the association and other educational bodies and trade bodies linked with the legal profession. But questions do strike the mind as to the effectiveness of such vaunted exercises.

Who's on the task force of the NYC Bar Association? A veritable glitterati of legal luminaries, well acquainted with forming committees and subcommittees and of the likes of meetings in five-star hotels convened to discuss the fate of the homeless.

As pointed out by Mr. Dunne, and mentioned in previous news – too often the focus has been on large firms and top-flight law schools. “A different story needs to be told at the other levels of the market” he said. And having said that, the committee that has been formed is from large law firms and top-flight law schools. There are law school deans and leaders including the deans of five top law schools, City University of New York School of Law, Cardozo Law School, Columbia Law School, Georgetown Law School, and Harvard Law School. There are government attorneys from New York City, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. There are large law firm leaders from firms like Simpson Thacher, Skadden, Freshfields, Quinn Emmanuel, and Wharton & Garrison. There are representatives from solo, small, and medium law firms. There are chief in-house counsel from companies like Xerox, Morgan Stanley, and Pfizer. There are career services and recruiting professionals from law firms and law schools.

But there does not seem to be any jobless lawyer or debt-ridden law student on the committee who could relay the actual concerns of those who are down and out. One is reminded of the situation where a princess of England had commented why the soldiers on the war front were not eating cakes if they do not have access to bread.

Few are aware that very recently, as recent as February 2011, the New York State Bar Association has already published a study made by another task force, the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession. The existence of the report and the efforts already undertaken would not be unknown by Mr. Dunne, for he is deeply involved in problems facing court structures and legal issues. In fact, a detailed handbook by the NYBSA Current Legal Issues Affecting the Profession, published in 2009, 2010 and 2011 refer extensively to the findings of the Dunne Commission, published in 2007, which was chaired by Mr.Dunne.

The report by the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession of the NYBSA had made many recommendations, and among its four key recommendations, the fourth was on “the implications of technology on the practice of law.” The report mentioned, “All signs indicate that technology will continue to impact the way lawyers are educated and practice, and will impact the traditional skills associated with lawyering and how lawyers interact with their clients.”

Despite the NY State Bar Association having done a rather in-depth study of the matter, the NYC Bar Association is engaged in reinventing the wheel, rather than drawing from that study.

The NYC Bar Association's new task force appointed to study the legal job market and find its problems has no representative from leading technology companies who offer software and SAS for lawyers. There is no representation from e-document review companies and other companies whose presence is affecting the state of the legal profession and the job market. All we find is an attempt to find a solution with the same set of components that created the problem in the first place.

As Mr.Dunne is very well aware, and says so to Reuters, “Outsourcing is just an example of how technology is challenging the old legal model. When technology allows people in India or Indiana to do document review that young lawyers were doing 10 years ago, what that signals is that there is a fundamental shift in some areas of the market.”

So, how many representatives from the legal process outsourcing industry are on the committee? So, far, none.

We are not saying that what the NYC Bar Association is doing is anything less than exemplary, but just saying it might have been better if the exercise led to something more than just examples. This annual ritual of studying the market to find the future of the legal profession or to find the present problems with the legal job market need to be more than, as Dunne puts it, “hand-wringing exercise(s).”

The NYC Bar Association is one of the few professional bodies in the country, which can really make a difference. We wish it would take things more seriously, consider representatives from the sections of the legal profession who have been hurt most by the market situation, and consider representatives from those parts of the industry who have effected radical changes to the market by their entry. And we wish the task force would then find solutions that really help set things right, even if in a minor way, rather than just rearranging ….