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Over lawyer-ed? 

The job market for lawyers is tight. Some say it'll get worse.

Some people will always believe there are too many lawyers. At the moment, the market seems to agree.

Recent law school graduates are having trouble finding work, and even some established practitioners have felt a pinch as the demand for legal services declined during the recession. There are those who say the problem is short-term, that the outlook for lawyers will improve when the general economy improves. Others believe fundamental change has occurred, that the demand for lawyers will continue to fall, that too many loans are being made to too many students attending too many law schools, that the legal profession is over-populated already. Those who believe this tend to believe it strongly, with exclamation points and capital letters, like the anonymous ranter on Yahoo Answers, apparently a lawyer him- or herself, probably in a large city:

"We simply already have too many Legal Professionals. AND the legal profession is dramatically changing. It is in absolute CRISIS!!! Job searching in this vocational field has changed >>DRAMATICALLY<< in the last five years. And, every year, more and more people graduate from law school, but there are fewer and fewer jobs. Even the largest and most reputable law firms are experiencing unprecedented cutbacks."

Slate, an on-line magazine, reported last month on a law-school grad who named his school in his bankruptcy filing, claiming that the school should have known he wouldn't be able to repay the student loans he'd received. Slate also remarked on a Boston College law student who wrote an open letter to his dean, begging for his tuition back in exchange for dropping out without a degree. "This will benefit both of us," he wrote. "On the one hand, I will be free to return to the teaching career I left to come here. I'll be able to provide for my family without the crushing weight of my law school loans. On the other hand, this will help BC Law to go up in the rankings, since you will not have to report my unemployment at graduation to US News."

Law school graduates in Arkansas aren't going to such extremes — yet — but they are being roughed up by a rocky job market.

Keith Pike, a 2010 graduate of the UALR Law School, eventually found work, but it wasn't easy. "I'd been clerking for one of the big firms and kind of led to believe I'd have a job there after graduation. Then the economy crashed and all those jobs at the big law firms dried up." Business clients became less active; they didn't need or couldn't afford legal services as much as previously.

"I sent a ton of resumes to different law firms. They all said, 'We're not hiring now.' I applied to work for judges, but there are 10 times as many people applying for those jobs as normal, including a lot from out of state. I graduated in the top 20 of my law school class and I have a master's degree in business from UCA. I was one of those people who should have no trouble finding a job in a normal economy. I can't imagine what the people in the bottom half of the class are doing."

He resolved to open his own law firm, and was looking for office space when he exchanged e-mails with a general-practice firm in downtown Little Rock. "They hadn't been hiring, but after talking with them, they said 'You're too good to pass up.' "

Pike's loan payments are troublesome. "My wife is also an attorney. We have good salaries for Arkansas. You'd think we'd have a house in the Heights, but we're living in a condo." He's still miffed at the Bush administration.

"The interest rate [on student loans] was around 2.7 percent when I started my schooling. One of the last things the Republicans did was set student interest rates at 6.8 percent and prevent consolidation of loans. Now all my loans are at 6.8 percent. That's very high for this kind of economy. I'm not sure why the Republicans did it. I think a bunch of banks probably lobbied Congress and said 'We're not making money, why don't you help us?' " The loans are set for 30 years; Pike hopes that as his and his wife's legal careers progress, they'll be able to pay off the loans early. On the other hand, "If the economy takes another downturn, both of us could be laid off. I feel sorry for the people who went to private law schools. Their loans are bigger."

A salary of $65,000 has been referred to in reports on the lawyers' job market as a "break-even" figure, meaning that's what a person needs in order to pay off his loans and still maintain a standard of living that makes going to law school worthwhile. Pike didn't quarrel with that figure. "You can make less than that and get by, but if you're going to make less than that maybe it's not worth getting a law degree. The courts have made it nearly impossible to get student loans forgiven by bankruptcy. I think the long-term problem for Arkansas is that the cost of getting a degree has risen to such a point, it's outgrown what the market pays an attorney. Or it's quickly approaching that figure."

Sergio Ceja says that finding a job after graduating from UALR Law has been "really difficult. Most places you can't even get an interview." He went to Jacksonville to help one of his classmates start a law firm, now called Vaughan and Friedman. He didn't anticipate working there fulltime — he thought he'd work awhile for free, just to get the experience — but now he anticipates a longer, more substantial relationship. He's not making any money to speak of, but he says that in Jacksonville more than Little Rock, "There's an opportunity to bring in business." He's supposed to begin repaying his student loans next month. He hopes to negotiate a smaller payment than was originally scheduled, but that hasn't been resolved yet.

Ceja thought about going to Texas, but decided against it. Of Latino descent himself, he notes that there's a growing Latino population in Central Arkansas, and not a lot of Latino lawyers.

Joycelyn Bell graduated from the UALR Law School in December 2009 and passed the bar exam in February 2010. Did she have difficulty finding a job? "That would be an understatement." Like Ceja, Bell and a classmate were planning to work as volunteers, for experience, but one of her offers to work for nothing produced an actual paying job, though she still hopes to find something "more permanent."

"I looked at leaving town, but I stayed because my family is rooted here." She too has student loans to pay off, and "That could definitely be a problem," but, like Ceja, she has hopes of getting her payments reduced through a "hardship" provision. In any event, "I've worked too hard to give up on being a lawyer."

Not everybody has trouble. Tyler Broyles accepted a job offer that was made even before he graduated among the top students in his class at UALR Law. He's working at a middle-sized (12 lawyers) Little Rock firm, representing defendants in civil cases. Repayment of his student loan begins next month, and he's confident he can handle it. "I've been fortunate," he says. "I have a friend who graduated at Fayetteville who opened her own practice. She said she couldn't find anything."

In a recent article in the American Bar Association Journal, two law professors predicted that the number of law schools will shrink. They said the "super elite" schools will continue as they are, and provide most of the lawyers to fill the high-paying jobs at big law firms that all law students envision themselves getting. Otherwise, the professors said, the schools that survive will be those with good placement records, or that are in a region little served by other institutions, or that have lower tuition because they're state-subsidized. The third category fits Arkansas's two law schools, and the deans at both schools emphasize that because of their lower tuition, their graduates carry lighter debt loads.

Dean Cynthia Nance at UAF and Dean John DiPippa at UALR sound alike on other things too. Such as, the advisability of law grads going to smaller towns to practice.

"We have a lot of senior alumni who'd love to turn their practice over to young people, in West Memphis and El Dorado and other places," Nance said. "I'm trying to tell our students there's really an opportunity there. They like Fayetteville and Little Rock for the nightlife. I tell them that won't be so important when they're married with a couple of kids. If it's a buyer's market, you'd better go where there are more opportunities."

DiPippa said: "The recession caused not just a restructuring but a destructuring of the profession at certain levels. The firms that did high-stakes financial things, they're devastated. I don't think those jobs are coming back. We're turning out more graduates for jobs with big law firms than we need. But most of the legal profession has not been fundamentally changed. Personal injury, defense, wills, insurance — those things will still be around. Travel to the small towns across Arkansas and you'll find that people do still need people-to-people law."

"A lot of graduates are leaving expensive law schools with very high debt loads," DiPippa said. "They figured they'd get six-figure jobs when they got out, but that's where the real crisis hit. They're not going to be able to recoup."

Philip S. Anderson of Little Rock, a partner in a law firm that employs nearly 30 lawyers, and a former president of the American Bar Association, said:

"The market may be coming back now — I think it is — but the last three years have been very tough years. Our clients have been less prone to pursue projects that would require the work of lawyers because the clients' own businesses have been hit by the recession. Law firms in Little Rock have not been hiring new graduates at the rate they did before the recession hit. Hiring hasn't come to a stop, but it has most assuredly slowed down. I have counseled promising new graduates to seek jobs in government to ride out the decline in hiring by the private law firms. ... Are we overpopulated with lawyers? I can't say. The market will decide that."

Harry Hamlin is managing director of the Mitchell Williams law firm, one of Arkansas's largest, with about 80 lawyers in five offices, the biggest of which is in Little Rock. He said the firm had hired three or four law students in August to go to work next August, after graduation. "Year before last we didn't hire anybody." The Mitchell firm is so big, and has so many different specialties, that it may not feel the recession as much as smaller firms, Hamlin said. When the housing market tanked, the firm's lending practice went down, but the foreclosure practice went up. And, "Our business with larger corporate clients has picked up a little bit. They're looking for cheaper law firms than are available in the big cities."

It's widely believed that websites offering forms for wills and other basic legal documents are hurting lawyers, that people are now doing things on-line that they used to go to lawyers for. At least one of these companies, legalzoom.com, is being sued, accused of the unauthorized practice of law. But most of the lawyers and educators interviewed for this article weren't ready to concede that the profession has been seriously harmed by the electronic offerings. Some noted that legal forms have long been available from libraries and other sources. They all noted the dangers involved in trying to be your own lawyer, and they said there'll always be litigation and other services that only a lawyer can perform adequately. (All true, probably, but the Internet seems to embolden people to do a lot of things they wouldn't have done with pencil and paper. And to lead people to expect something for nothing.)

William D. Haught, who specializes in wills, says he can't tell that his practice has been hurt by electronic competition, "but it's a trend that will probably continue." He's aware that the job market for lawyers has tightened up, but his firm, small and intending to stay that way, does little hiring even in the best of times.

Hamlin said he had a good friend who was an electrician. "He wanted to form a corporation. He said he could just go to the secretary of state's website and do it himself. I told him, 'I can rewire an outlet too, but do you think I should be doing that?' There are a lot of things you can do on-line, and a lot of that stuff works fine. But you don't know all the ramifications. Sometimes we get business out of people trying to do things for themselves."

John Wesley Hall is a criminal defense lawyer. Even though criminals are plentiful, and expected to remain so, he's felt the economic slump. "Most people in our line of work say we're recession-proof," Hall said, "but getting paid is always the issue. You know you're in a recession when even the drug dealers don't have any money." Eighty percent of criminal cases are handled by public defenders, and that number is increasing, Hall said. (One branch of criminal defense is prospering, though, Hall said, and that is defense of white-collar crime. "I've got a friend who's been hired in the BP [British Petroleum] case. He'll make more money in the next five years than I'll make the rest of my life. It's not just the corporation that's in trouble, there'll probably be employees indicted. There could be negligent homicide cases. Criminal-defense lawyers are falling all over themselves to get in on that case and get their friends in.")

Possibly because criminal defense lawyers know about facing up to unpleasant facts, Hall doesn't hesitate to say that "I think society as a whole is over-lawyered. That's why they're turning on each other with malpractice suits. When I started practicing in 1973, there were 250,000 lawyers in this country. Now, there are 1.1 million." The US population has grown in the same period, of course — from a little over 200 million to a little over 300 million — but at nowhere near the rate at which the lawyer population has grown.

Jim Julian of Little Rock, president of the Arkansas Bar Association, says that the legal profession has seen ebbs and flows over the years. "This economic downturn seems to have had a more significant impact than I've seen in the past. Whether it'll be long-term or not, I don't know."

A cold-eyed British law professor wrote a couple of years back: "The law is not there to provide a livelihood for lawyers any more than ill health exists to offer a living for doctors. Successful legal business may be a byproduct of law in society, but it is not the purpose of law. And, just as numerous other industries and sectors are having to adapt to broader change, so too should lawyers."

Everybody in the newspaper business knows the feeling.

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