I suspect that my days as a country lawyer are numbered. The economy is that bad. Although I have only anecdotal information to support the following hypothesis, I believe it nonetheless to be true: the middle class has run out of cash. We see this in the tones of despair with which potential clients respond when it comes time to talking about a fee.
No one really plans on the sort of trouble that leads folks to the door of a criminal defense or civil rights lawyer. Most folks are struggling to get by one day, one paycheck, at a time. When trouble comes sweeping down and knocks them down, most folks struggle to their feet without the resources to wage an effective battle for their rights and freedom. In a tough economy, people at the margin are driven, simply, to their knees, or to despair.
It wasn’t always this way. Easy credit made hiring lawyers possible in all sorts of cases.
Six years ago, I pulled up stakes and left New Haven for a spot close to where I live. I am no more than a 90 minute drive from any courthouse in the state, but, to give you a sense of where my office is, consider this: there is a feed store across the road. I have for years bought grain to feed chickens from this store.
When there was money circulating in the economy, location did not seem to matter. I’d take a case here and a case there. It didn’t really matter to me if I was in New London on Monday and Danbury on Tuesday. I charged enough to cover what I called the road tax. Enough clients had the funds and sense that I was worth the extra expense to make it work.
In the past few months, I have come to hear the same thing over and over again: clients have no money, no access to credit cards, no home equity, and they are being turned down at banks, credit unions and any other lender they approach for a loan. Everyone wants a payment plan, but they cannot assure me the plan is one that will do anything other than leave me with what amounts to pro bono, or near pro bono, work. I can't pay my staff in promises.
At first, I thought it was just me. I am proud and independent to a fault. I did not want to say anything to other lawyers for fear it would convey weakness. A lingering something whispered into my ear that it was just me: I had lost my touch.
But then I started asking around. What I heard is scary. One judge tells me that the low-level criminal courts are awash in folks representing themselves. Public defenders relay an increased case volume. Private lawyers from firms large and small report that fees are hard to come by. I’ve only spoken to one lawyer who appears to be thriving, but he takes cases on the explicit understanding that he won’t take them to trial: in other words, clients coming to him know his goal and interest is pleading them guilty to the best deal he can get them. That strikes me as an odd practice: how good can the plea deals be when the state knows you will fold every time?
This dearth of cash puzzles me. The financial press reports the stock market is at a three-year high. Someone is making money. I suspect the boats of the middle class are not rising with this tide. The other America has gone kerplunk.
So, much though I love a view from my office window that is verdant, and often filled with wildlife, deer, foxes and, from time to time and to my sorrow, fisher cats, ambling by, almost close enough to touch, I suspect it’s time to pack up and head back to a city. I used to thrive living in the shadow of a criminal court, listening to folks, picking up a case here and there, and relying on a volume of lower-paying cases to carry my firm. I’ve also sent a letter to the federal courts asking to be reappointed to the Criminal Justice Act panel. I guess its time to hunker down and ride this one out on the same streets on which I learned to stand up for the accused.
Waterbury beckons; so, too, does New Haven. I'll miss the view from my window.