BBLP Asks, "Is it TIme for an Associates' Union?"

 In a previous post, we discussed the 1.5 million dollar wage gap for women in the legal profession and the insight that while educational attainment does not narrow wage gaps, unions do. This week, we'll take a closer look at what unions can do for white-collar workers in general, and law associates in particular.

            Traditionally, unions have been the domain of blue-collar laborers,  however, the benefits of unionization are well suited for the needs of associates in today's legal labor market.  While unions are less effective in negotiating pay increases in white-collar workplaces, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute , they produce a "sweeping advantage . . . in fringe benefits." How does 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave sound to you? How about 18% lower health care deductibles and more generous health care policies? Or how about that old standard that is increasingly becoming as rare as the holy grail: employer provided pension plans, unionized workers are 23 to 54 percent more likely to get them.

            What's more, behind all these carrots, there is a stick. In the aftermath of last year's sweeping layoffs, job security in the legal marketplace is not what is once was. Even equity partners are not safe; in 2009, 8 percent of female equity partners were de-equitized to increase profits for the remaining partners.   This brand of "professionalism" is reminiscent of a cut-throat reality TV show. (These lawyers are literally making the cross-over.)  There is a growing body of literature on the "deprofessionalization" of lawyering and the "falling" of the legal profession.           

            In a revealing Reuters article, James B. Kelleher of The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy concludes that with the recent Depression-sized layoffs in professional fields, "white-collar is the new blue-collar."   The president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) explained that "white-collar workers, who used to think their education and standing guaranteed them a certain amount of insulation, are now realizing that's a fantasy in this economy." Marion Crane, a law professor at the University of North Carolina agrees, writing that "white-collar workers have become the blue-collar workers of the 21st century in terms of job security,  wages and benefits."

 The hope, supported by scholarship, is that unions and union-like associations help to restore prestige and stability to professions, like the law, which are "under attack from social, political, and economic forces, including the bureaucracy."

            Currently, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, , founded in 1969 and with 650 members today is the oldest and largest legal union. It has succeeded in securing better salaries, workload limits, aggressive affirmative action policies and health and safety protections, among other benefits. More recently, 1000 Administrative Law Judges working at the Social Security Administration (1999) 218 Immigration Judges working for the Department of Justice (2006) formed unions to discuss "security, workload and other issues."    In each of these settings, benefits, and not salaries drove the unionizing process.

            Finally, organized groups of law students have also been successful in shaping the fringe benefits afforded by major law firms. In the 1960s, students at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, New York University, Columbia, Penn, and Georgetown pushed for the opportunity to work on public interest cases while at major law firms, stating, in some cases, that they would refuse a firm that did not allot a certain amount of time for pro bono work. This union-like negotiation effort yielded both higher first-year salaries and the desired pro bono and community service programs.

 In 2007, Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP), organized law students to push for more transparency in law firms as well as benefits like work-life balance and aggressive diversity policies. Rather than cower during the recession, fear of powerlessness upon joining a deprofessionalizing firm led many students to take a second look at BBLP.  As the legal marketplace begins to recover, perhaps the time is right for associates to associate.

Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.