Monday, November 26, 2007

Making the Most of the Middle

Recently I heard a lawyer speak about the great need for affordable legal services to the middle class. He set in opposition to the middle class the following: (1) the high cost of law school which drives up the price tag for legal services; (2) the flood of lawyers to large firms that the middle class can't afford (suggesting that BigLaw doesn't help the middle class); and (3) the focus on providing free legal services to the indigent. His basic conclusion was that if you are rich or poor in America you get legal services, but if you are in the middle you lose out because there's nobody out there doing anything for you.

I feel for the middle class. I came from and am currently a member of the middle class. However, the idea that people in the middle class are somehow victims of the system is just not true. The middle class is an intelligent, resourceful group of people that are not suffering at the hands of Corporate America. They are people who shine their brightest when they embrace personal responsibility.

First, lawyers who serve corporations in "BigLaw" firms DO indirectly serve the middle class. Many people in the middle class work for corporations and benefit from lawyers’ efforts on behalf of those corporations. Lawyers in large law firms, doing their best work, save corporations countless dollars which helps job retention for the middle class. Just because a lawyer serves the corporate world directly does not mean that lawyer is not indirectly doing a great deal of good for the middle class.

Second, one reason the middle class can’t afford legal services is that many are deep in debt and live above their means. This is actually true for more than just the middle class, but here I address the middle class in particular. If middle class people lived below their means and saved for rainy days, they would be able to afford legal services. There are lawyers who directly serve the middle class, but the middle class has to be able to pay them. People in the middle class are stuck in the middle, hence, their moniker. They don’t have money to burn, but they aren’t in such great financial need that people give them a break. Okay, so that’s life. They still have to live responsibly and save for rainy days because rainy days do happen and they often involve lawyers.

I am sure there are many more angles to this issue, Here are just two observations:1) We should quit demonizing corporations and the lawyers who serve them. Both do a lot of good for a lot of Americans. Anyone who preserves jobs provides a much-needed service to the middle class. (2) We should quit excusing the middle class for their consumptive lifestyle. You may have read The Millionaire Next Door and know that many millionaires drive beat-up Fords, not the latest SUVs on lease. If I were a betting woman, I would wager that the average millionaire next door can afford legal services in their times of need. A person in the middle class who confronts a legal problem may not be rich afterwards, but they're not going to be broke either. They survive financially to see another day and save another dollar, just in case there's another rainy day.


Jim Chen said...

Dear Alison,

You and Kelly are doing a fantastic job riding alongside the professors here at Red Lion Reports. This was an especially insightful post. It was even nicely decorated. Thanks for writing it.

Jim Chen

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

Dean Chen,

Thank you for the encouragement. I sincerely appreciate and enjoy the opportunity to contribute.


Marie T. Reilly said...

The economic situation of the middle class is a hot topic among bankruptcy academics, legislators and the popular press. Who is in the "middle" class, who is not, and how/whether those in the "upper class" should be transferring wealth to the middle class are complex and rich questions. It seems to me that you think the 'middle class' is not saving at an appropriate rate and should not expect to be 'bailed out' by government subsidy or otherwise from the consequences of their short sightedness or lack of discipline. This intuition drove the lobbying surrounding the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act which was enacted after nearly 5 years of pushing by the consumer credit industry. BRA imposed a "means test" to limit access to debt forgiveness in bankruptcy to those debtors who truly "could not pay." Whether the reform has had the desired effect of disciplining 'middle class' debtors remains to be seen. My point is that if you are interested in this question-- why the middle class isn't saving for a rainy day and what law should do about it-- you'd probably be interested in bankruptcy policy which is all about this very thing.

gsmcneal said...

In a somewhat related post, Brian Tamahana of St. Johns links to an NPR story about the astronomically high and ever increasing costs of attending law school, Tamahana's post can be found here:

An excerpt:
"Today, the only reason to go to law school (at least outside of the elite schools) is that one is absolutely determined to become a lawyer. For everyone else, law school is a long, expensive, laborious slog, which offers uncertain rewards.

What does this mean for social justice?

* * * *
Students who enter law school with the desire to work in public service positions often instead go on to become associates at corporate law firms owing to concern about the hefty loan they must repay...What this means is that fewer and fewer lawyers can afford to work in public service positions. If current trends continue, moreover, it is possible that low paying legal positions of all kinds will go unfilled, as these positions make no economic sense for law graduates..."