I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, no less law school. This has given me a certain perspective on the practice of law, particularly as it pertains to those from a working-class, underprivileged background. This is so not only in terms of how the legal profession serves people from these walks of life, but also in terms of how the legal profession treats those among its own ranks who come from these origins as well.
The thing that continues to amaze me is how hypocritical, greedy and crass so many "old time" baby-boomer criminal defense attorneys continue to be, despite the overwhelming evidence that such behaviors are actually detrimental to their professional and economic success in a modern, more progressive era.
Most of my observations don't apply to the larger firms, where more highly educated, cultured and economically secure attorneys are found. Rather, my observations are limited to those small, low-level firms and municipal court corridors, where those attorneys who have the highest degree of contact with the "common man," often show their "true colors."
One of the most profound and recurring patterns of self-interested idiocy that I encounter in the legal profession revolves around the method in which lawyers pay themselves and the attorneys who work for them.
Almost all of the firms I have worked for refuse to hire attorneys as associates or "employees," because this means that they will have to pay higher taxes to both the state and the Federal government. Instead, they bring us all on as "independent contractors," (also called 1099s). Almost every lawyer learned in law school how employers manipulate and violate the law by hiring employees as "independent contractors" so as to escape paying taxes, but many of us, faced by a depressed job market, are unable to resist falling prey to the similar such schemes when they are forced upon us by unscrupulous senior partners.
One of the sad results of being an independent contractor is that you are often forced to pay 40% taxes on your annual wages. Granted, you can qualify for a much larger number of deductions than those enjoyed by run-of-the-mill employees. That said, the number of deductions one can take advantage of decrease each year and really don't apply unless you have a really obscene amount of business expenses. The vast majority of the expenses incurred by my household (which is limited to my wife and myself) are purely dedicated to survival, so we miss out on these so-called phantom deductions.
Now, my boss doesn't allow the independent contractor lawyers working for him to have their names on office stationary, wont allow them to use his address on their business cards, or even sign letters to Firm clients or prosecutors in their own names. Everything must be in his name. This is in keeping with the fact that we are independent contractors, rather than associates, which would mean a whole different setup, legally speaking.
When I first started working for him, he wanted me to carry around his business card and hand it around for him, despite the fact that I wasn't guaranteed a cut of any cases I brought into the firm. You see, "fee sharing" is ethically improper between attorneys if they don't have an associate-partner or partner-partner relationship, generally speaking.
As a result of this, I made up my own business cards, started renting my own tiny office for a pittance, yet still work for him during the day so I can learn more about criminal litigation, make contacts and the like. If I'm an "independent contractor" I am able to do this, because I'm basically a small-businessman, an entrepreneur, a maverick, a member of the self-employed rabble.
That said, my boss became irate when I told him that I gained 3 new clients. He said he wanted a cut and deserved a cut while I was "on the clock." I told him I didn't work on a clock and was an independent contractor and that he only hires me for certain appearances during the day. He said he deserves a cut, but will "let it slide" this time. I went home and researched the law and I was correct. As an independent contractor, I am totally able to acquire my own clients and start my own, on-the-side business, without him gaining a cut of anything. I called him up on the phone to let him know and he said "fine, no problem."
I think he was just testing me. I have been pushing for employee status in the office for some time, now. With employee status would come a lower tax rate for me, but I would also have to give the firm all the clients I pull-in. On the other hand, as an independent contractor, I have a higher tax rate, but I also have more freedom in terms of having access to independent sources of income and deductions. His argument was that he should get a cut because I picked up the client "on his time," but again, this argument only applies to traditional employees, who have a system of reciprocal duties and obligations to their employer. Independent Contractors don't have a vertical relationship of privity. Instead, its horizontal and there is, legally speaking, a much larger level of equality between them.
The thing is, many employers forget this, because they basically mis-use and abuse the independent contractor status for tax-deduction purposes. They want to receive the tax-deductions, but they still want to control and dominate those who work for them as if they were traditional employees. Many employees who lack a legal background may fall for this, but if you are paying an attorney to work for you, they might not be so naiive.
What pissed me off about the whole scenario, though, was that I realized that I have to keep fighting, tooth-and-nail, just to maintain a livelihood. The guy is basically trying to exploit me every chance he gets. He thinks this is to his advantage, but in the long term, it isn't. I can just leave. The pay isn't that great to begin with...
Another thing I notice is that many of these old time white lawyers vociferously complain about younger and/or minority attorneys and how they are "willing to take on a case for much less money" and how this drives down prices in the profession. Just the other day I heard an attorney complain about an hispanic lawyer (he utilized a slur in describing him) and how he's willing to take-on complex, indictable felony cases, up to and through a trial, for only $1,000. The attorney I was speaking with (who was filthy rich, by the way) was absolutely outraged, because he normally charges $2,000 up to indictment, an additional $2,000 after indictment and $5,000 should the case go to trial.
Other attorneys have expressed similar outrage that young lawyers, right out of law school, are willing to take on indictable criminal matters for similar low sums, and even traffic and municipal court matters for $150 to $200 a case, when the normal, going rate is $300 to $500 a case. The older lawyers privately complain that this is depressing wages and that they are no longer able to take as many vacations as they once did. As a result, they don't hire as many young lawyers because they feel an instinctual desire to conserve scarce capital and invest it in other, possibly more long-term lucrative areas (rental property, stocks, bonds, etc...).
Yet, in doing so, these old-time attorneys are inadvertantly creating the very condition that is terrifying them to begin with: a large pool of unemployed, destitute young lawyers. These young lawyers need to eat, pay rent and pay off their student loans. Many of them even have families they need to support. There is no way they can compete with the old time lawyers in terms of experience, reputation and ability. The only way they can compete with them, and get the business they need to survive, is by charging a lower fee. They do this out of necessity, not out of greed. And in doing so, they are able to stay afloat and pay-off the extortionate student loans that helped finance their way through law school. Many of them even have high levels of credit card debt, because the social safety net is stripped bare and many of them have been living off of Master Card and Visa, using plastic to pay for groceries and doctors' visits, because times have been so rough and because their full and/or part time employers refuse to provide them with a decent wage or healthcare benefits.
There's a race to the bottom in terms of prices in the legal profession. This is good for consumers and new lawyers, but its an absolute nightmare for old-time lawyers. A sad thing, though, is that many of these new lawyers, by undercutting the old-timers, will only make enough money for their short-term needs. The money they make through such practices will never be enough to fully pay off their student loans, especially if current trends continue. Their only resort is to gain enough experience and expertise and become a "specialist" attorney of some sort, who can command a higher wage for a higher quality type of service, such as DWI, trial work or the like.
But for the volume-based firms at the low-end of the spectrum, the prices are coming down, dramatically, and its causing a massive amount of vicious cannibalism within the profession. In fact, most of the complaints I hear about from young lawyers and old lawyers alike at Bar Association lunches and cocktail hours, stem from this key issue.