October 05, 2011

Written Testimony of Abbie F. Willard - Center for Professional Responsibility

Written Testimony of Abbie F. Willard,
Assistant Dean of Career Services,
Georgetown Univerity Law Center

The last witness of the day was Abbie F. Willard, Assistant Dean of Career Services, Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Ph.D. who has counseled students and alumni at a large law school for approximately 20 years. She would frame the question more broadly than professional services firms operated by accountants and other nonlawyers seeking to provide legal services and examine the value added when lawyers and other professionals associate and affiliate. She presented five examples. First, practitioners and practice groups who draw on more than just a narrow definition of what the law is. Just about every lawyer these days draws upon other disciplines to prevent or solve problems that have financial, business, technological, social, health or safety implications. The smaller, solo practitioner can benefit in areas such as family and elder law [psychologists, social workers, medical professionals], labor and employment law [human relations specialists, benefits specialists], and personal injury, products liability and medical malpractice [health care professionals, research scientists]. Second, client service in a rapidly changing, complex world increasingly requires skills in advising and counseling and preventive problem solving at a palatable price. She cited Attorney General Janet Reno’s proposed model (1/9/99 address at AALS Annual Meeting) that identifies the lawyer as the 21 st century problem solver to bridge the gap between disciplines for the people, with primary emphasis placed on creative thinking and reaching out for other knowledge, advice and instruction as well as greater emphasis on negotiation, dispute resolution and collaborative working relationships. Dean Willard also referred to the Business School case study model. Third, lawyer and law firm health could be improved through alternative organizational structures, possibly mdps. To grow and be profitable the traditional law firm structure is dependent on leveraging that is almost impossible to sustain indefinitely. Its up or out mentality breeds dissatisfaction and instability. A structure redesign could provide more services to a wider array of clients. The NYU Pain Management Institute is an example of the health care multidisciplinary model that encompasses physical medicine and therapy, behavior therapy, psychologists and social workers as well as medically trained doctors. Fourth, individual lawyers, law students, and prospective lawyers express job dissatisfaction in the way the profession is currently structured. Those who enter the profession express dissatisfaction with the promise law school gave them of what they can realize and the reality they experience once they get into practice. Research has shown that collegial relationships are pivotal in the equation of factors that affect both satisfaction and productivity of lawyers. The 1998 National Association of Law Placement (NALP) Foundation Keeping the Keepers study found that the attrition of lawyers occurs unexpectedly early and then escalates to unhealthy levels almost immediately. In the first year almost 10% of lawyers in all sizes of firms leave their first position, by the third year attrition has almost doubled and escalates to almost 40 and 50 percent in the ensuing years. Focus groups revealed that entrants to the profession no longer are looking for long term development into senior counsel or partnership positions but are looking to the profession as a one year commitment. The incentives, the brass ring that kept them working and made them feel part of the club, are no longer working as they find the structure and life style make them miserable. Compensation is very important at entry level but once inside collegiality takes its place in importance. Lawyers want teamwork and support for professional development and find extraordinary competitiveness. Fifth, public perception is an issue as the legal profession in the late 20 th century is in search of a lost esteem. The crisis is one of survival of lawyers as we know them. The profession can evolve to meet the perceptions and needs of those it serves or lose more than the opportunity to change. Change needs to occur at the bar leadership role as the ethics code is adapted to meet the needs of a changing, complex society, and at the individual lawyer level as he or she responds to client needs. This ‘lawyers in accounting firms’ opportunity should bring a focus on value added service to clients through partnerships and alliances that provide interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving.

Dean Willard answered Professor Daly that she has no data regarding how lawyers perceive their accounting firm jobs or environment but anecdotally recounted that in the last three years the most sought after interview slots have not been with the very large private firms but rather with the accounting firms because of the promotional information that’s been distributed and the feedback from lawyers who are already there. She told Professor Haddon that what was originally thought to be the prestige of the profession was no longer holding up and she was being asked by some of the best and the brightest students for counseling regarding investment banking houses, consulting firms as well as accounting firms. Judge Friedman asked whether these students were finding the kinds of things they were looking for, more collegiality and the like, in these other environments and Dean Willard said there is not enough information yet regarding what they’re finding. She agreed that with lawyers choosing alternative milieus in which to use their law degrees including organizations where nonlawyers are the decisionmakers there is a concern that the core values of legal ethics will get lost if others are calling the tune; she also acknowledged that the law schools have a greater obligation to instill awareness of core ethical values, mentioning a broader, pervasive instructional method as well as clinical programs and ethics journals. Judge Friedman also mentioned that creativity within academia to change its ways of teaching people what lies ahead was also called for. Professor Hazard asked whether those with a legal degree shouldn’t be able to practice in whatever setting they find most congenial- investment or real estate development or lobbying or accounting firm - subject only to the requirement that if they call themselves a lawyer they ought to be bound by the Model Rules. Beyond the employment structure Dean Willard thinks it is the matters that come across a lawyer’s desk, the practice of law itself, that is no longer as neat and tidy as we once would have liked to believe it to be and people must be able to adapt these matters to the constructs of ethical behavior. Referencing his work with the Yale School of Management Professor Hazard queried whether the ‘core values’ of loyalty and confidentiality did not pervade all the helping professions (investment banking, accountancy, real estate development, corporate management). Dean Willard urged that the sense of a higher calling traditional to the law be used to influence the behavior of professionals who do not have certification requirements with whom lawyers might affiliate. Dean Willard explained to Ms. Garvey that the medical multidisciplinary practice model had the advantage over a legal one in not dealing with people who are in a competitive position with other people so conflict of interest is not an issue; she could not say who called the shots in these arrangements. Referring to the Keepers study to answer Ms. Lamm, Dean Willard said lawyers going to an alternative practice setting expected to get training there in the practice of law. Dean Powell asked what happens to the core values in the legal profession of independence, social idealism, client centeredness, loyalty, autonomy, and sacrifice for the sake of abstractions such as justice, prudence and reasonableness in a merged conglomerate professional world. Dean Willard said that studies of lawyers who have been out from zero to 25 years indicate that there has been an erosion in some of those values and she believes that an ethics code that is responsive to a world that has changed will allow lawyers to maintain core values and be competitive in the delivery of service. Steve Nelson questioned whether in bringing together other disciplines with law in the same enterprise the gain outweighs the loss, the gain to the public and the consumer of services. Dean Willard sees the gain as more than offsetting the cost. Mr. Wander commented on having heard on more than a few occasions that young lawyers who go to work in multidisciplinary or accounting firms become very disenchanted within two or three years. In response to Mr. Mundheim’s question Dean Willard replied she thinks more than 40% of lawyers zero to 25 years out are no longer practicing law, but she has no study data on this. Asked if law schools were making changes in their curriculum in order to make students more attractive to alternative employers Dean Willard thinks that there are curricular changes and these are a response to what alumni are doing and what students want and think they need to practice law in this world; they are not necessarily changes focused on making students more marketable to certain entities.