BY ANGELA C. SCHECK, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NEW JERSEY STATE BAR ASSOCIATION
THE LEGAL PROFESSION continues to expand, though in New Jersey we are seeing a slowdown, as the number of new attorneys being admitted each year for the past few years has been less than in years past. Yet, according to the American Bar Association, the profession as a whole has grown nearly twice as fast as the nation’s population since 2010.
The demographics of the profession are changing. There are a growing number of Baby Boomers who are starting to consider retirement, and relatively smaller groups of Generation Y and Z attorneys coming into the profession. Based on one of our surveys, new lawyers have very different priorities about the balance of work with the rest of their lives. The gig economy also provides some flexibility that allows newer attorneys to go out on their own.
In addition, despite decades of conversations about ensuring opportunities for women and minorities in the profession, recent data shows that those groups continue to miss out on leadership opportunities or leave the practice, altogether. The percentage of lawyers who are racial or ethnic minorities has grown, but statistically they are underrepresented.
More than 13 percent of the country’s population is African American, but only about 5 percent of lawyers are, while less than 10 percent of partners are minorities. Also, women lawyers do not advance in the profession in the same way as their male counterparts. The gender gap at senior levels of law firms “contributes to the disproportionately high rate of attrition of senior women lawyers,” according to the Walking Out the Door study from the American Bar Association.
There are, however, new practice areas emerging. In New Jersey, the biggest growth over the past few years surrounds the legalization of cannabis. That growth continues with many law firms dedicating teams to cannabis practice.
As to challenges, access to justice issues are on everyone’s mind as there are many people who have a legal problem but feel they cannot afford to hire a lawyer—and they do not qualify for free legal aid. Many of these issues relate to basic consumer laws that do have a fundamental effect on people’s rights.
For example, most landlords are represented in landlord-tenant matters but the vast majority of tenants, especially in urban areas, are not. There are also challenges to the court system in ensuring that those who are unrepresented are treated fairly and are not at a disadvantage. The New Jersey State Bar Association and several county bar associations are working on initiatives that will help people find a lawyer at a reduced fee.
Regarding the upcoming elections, we are not a political organization, so we aren’t worried about any election from that perspective. But any new administration—whether state or national—enacts new policies and laws that can have an impact on the profession and on the public, which we will need to address as lawyers.
Overall, the future of the profession is bright. A fair, independent and robust legal system is the cornerstone of our democracy, and lawyers and our courts remain critical institutions today and into the future.