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The Illinois State Bar Association has released two reports recently that reflect negatively on solo or small firm attorneys. One report (loosely) ties student loan debt and small firm economics to unethical conduct. The other shows that the vast majority of disciplined attorneys are solo or small firm practitioners.
Are the reports reflective of a problem - or is the bar way off base?
Last month, the ISBA released a questionable report on the impact of student loan debt on the legal profession. The report posited that the heavy student loan burden would discourage public interest jobs. It also noted that anecdotal evidence indicated an increase in ethics violations among lawyers with heavy debt loads. And since more recent grads and unemployed attorneys are hanging shingles, solo firms present an increasing risk of unethical conduct.
For the public interest argument, they’re forgetting one key factor: loan forgiveness, grants, and other perks for public service. Recent grads, if they have a choice in employers, usually are presented with two options: low-paying private sector or low-paying public service. Private sector jobs don’t provide loan forgiveness after ten years of minimum payments. Public interest jobs do.
As for that other odd argument about unethical conduct, we’d have a hard time outdoing Carolyn Elefant’s disemboweling of such a logically flawed argument, but the key points are this: anecdotal evidence means little, especially when actual evidence from the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission doesn’t back the theory. It’s a bit reckless to characterize solo firms in this way, and potentially scare the public, when you have only loose data to back your statements.
Recent grad or over-extended BigLaw partner, financial stresses come to many. Just because one has student loan debt doesn’t mean they are more likely to steal from clients. That’s a bit of a jump, isn’t it?
The other report shows that nearly three quarters of all sanctioned attorneys were solos. Nearly 90 percent were in solo or small firms. It’s an interesting statistic, though it is based on a small sample size of 156 sanctions against 155 attorneys (out of nearly 88,000 members of the bar).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that solo or small firm attorneys are more likely to commit violations. For one, we’d be curious to know what percentage of attorneys practice in solo or small firms (is the percentage disciplined disproportionate to their overall presence in the bar?). Also, small firms tend to cater to more consumer-oriented practices, which, of course leads to more consumer complaints. Finally, solos also often have less resources to make aggrieved clients whole, or to fight bar discipline.
It’s been said before: there are lies, damn lies and statistics. The problem is, when it comes to this report, which is it?