H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore journalist with a scathing dissenting voice and a gift for biting satire. His withering sarcasm was found in thousands of newspaper articles in the United States before he died in 1956. He authored "In Defense of Women" which was anything but! Some may cheer at the demise of a lawyer, but not the local lawyer you know and trust. That lawyer may be an endangered species in Oregon. Here is a look as to why the local lawyer is a dying breed.
When one graduates from law school and passes the bar, there are a few options. Most may see themselves hired by some law firm; they may not really care which one. Then there is the government job. The FBI was a popular choice before the scandals of J. Edger Hoover. No one would admit they want to go to work for the CIA. If the newbie lawyer sets their sights on the small, local law office there is an insurmountable obstacle -- student loans. Local lawyers usually cannot pay enough for a new lawyer to live on and still pay the amount required each month on their student loans. This explains the strain on those who aspire to work for legal aid or other pro bono groups.
There used to be the option of hanging out a shingle, the storied option of the ages for new lawyers. The euphemism of lawyers who are unable to enter any of the local lawyer markets are "contract lawyers". They are the ones who don't have a job, can't find a job and have given up to do hourly work for others without an employment relationship nor a safety net.
This leaves the downtown law firm and the government who can afford to pay enough to attract the best and the brightest from the local law schools.
In the twenty years that I have worked in the suburbs, in a county of about a half million people, there is not one law firm of two or more lawyers that has not evaporated or otherwise split asunder. That is startling! Is there something wrong? Does something have to come to the defense of your local lawyer?
The good part about being a local lawyer is you are your own boss for the most part. Here is the downside. First, the Oregon State Bar could care less about the local lawyer because they are without influence or power in the legal profession. The oligarchy of the large Portland law firm is where the Bar's attention is directed. That is where the power is. That is where the money is.
The challenges of a market niche is ever-present for the local lawyer. Often, a local lawyer takes what is available rather than what a downtown lawyer develops as a specialty. Doctors specialize during their education and training, lawyers usually do not. Employees available to your local lawyer no longer consider working in a law office as a career. They would rather work at Intel at twice the salary. Local judges control the dance for those brave souls who deign to do litigation in the local courthouse. (More on that subject later) The large firm lawyer is presumed by the local judge that he or she knows what they are talking about. The local lawyer is assumed by the local judge that they don't know what they are talking about. Can you imagine the vulnerability of a local lawyer who offends the local judicial constabulary because he or she happens to know what they are talking about and advocate accordingly?
Yellow page ads -- I have written about this before. Somewhere, somehow the yellow page sales persons have seduced local lawyers in a way that is downright laughable. Compare your local yellow pages for attorneys with those of local architects and accountants. It is pathetic. Therefore, your local lawyer must pay for splashy yellow page ads or websites they can ill afford to obtain local business of those who hate the fact they have to go to the local lawyer.
There is another sad fact about your local lawyer that transcends all else. Your local lawyer often volunteers to do good in ways nobody knows about and in ways which no one gives them credit. At they same time there are financial challenges for the local lawyer that warrants help no one provides. Rather, the local lawyer practices law at their financial peril when they are doing good for their community. The Oregon State Bar is quick to take to task and punish lawyers for being financially vulnerable. Rather, the Oregon State Bar should create a credit union or provide other financial solace for the thousands of honest, small-town lawyers who do good and ply their trade for the good of their community. Local lawyers are businesspersons like all who occasionally need a financial bridge. Sadly, it makes much better press to make an example of these poor local lawyer souls in our media and in discipline that punishes those who only seek to serve their local community. There are very few local lawyers who steal from their clients compared to those who do good for their clients. The local media are only interested in the salacious news of lawyers who are caught in financial misfortunes and the Oregon State Bar takes positive delight in the misfortune of your local lawyer who is caught in a financial malaise that they could not avoid. Other business folks would have financial resources available to help them through financial transitions all business people face. The Oregon State Bar has leadership that are turning away from this obvious problem. And, in the meantime, the Oregon State Bar is moving into a $20 million dollar building they don't need, being paid for by the dues of your local lawyer.
Corporate clients of large firms pay their bills and do not make Bar complaints. Clients of your local lawyers often do not pay their bills and often make Bar complaints -- sometimes to avoid paying their bills. Because the Oregon State Bar likes large firms and could care less about your local lawyer, the latter are defenseless. Citizens can make a difference. If you like your local lawyer, tell the Oregon State Bar and your local media reporter. Your local lawyer is a dying breed and must be saved because they are the heart's blood of the legal profession and your local community. The Oregon State Bar leadership is ignoring the local lawyer at their peril.
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