According to Indiana University Law Professor Bill Henderson, too many lawyers are working just to get rich, while other important aspects of the profession are being ignored altogether.
“We’re reaching a point when we have to step back and say ‘are we really doing our job as lawyers?’” Henderson said. “We have a first duty to our clients, then to the court system and broader society. Are we fulfilling those duties?”
According to a report from the World Inequality Lab, in 2020 the top 1% of individuals in the U.S. held about 35% of the wealth, which is approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age (roughly from 1870 to 1900).
Henderson attributes many political and social issues, such as gridlock in Washington, the rise of populism, and opioid addiction in rural communities, to this wealth inequality. And he says the work the legal profession does for wealthy clients just enlarges the gap.
“The historians tell you and the data shows you that these extreme wealth inequalities come and some sort of totalitarian movement from the left or right often follows,” Henderson said. “Lawyers are the ones that aid and abet the accumulation of wealth.”
Unfortunately, Henderson does not have a simple solution for how lawyers can strengthen U.S. institutions. However, he believes lawyers need to bear in mind that they have other professional responsibilities in addition to representing clients.
He notes that the American Bar Associations Rules of Professional Conduct say that attorneys should “cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients” and “employ that knowledge in the reform of the law.”
Henderson worries that today’s law firms, which tend to be driven by billable hours targets and client demands, don’t provide a good environment for anything other than representing clients. He argues that part of the solution is something individual lawyers or firms could help advance, either in private practice or through government service: the stricter enforcement of antitrust laws.
“The firms have created an environment where the one thing people can agree about is commercial ambition,” Henderson said. “If you think they’re being too commercially ambitious, you’re unlikely to be successful to get them to back off. The law firm is just not a good place, structurally, to act in concert to these serious issues.”