Cooley head: Aging attorney population to create many jobs

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

The President of Cooley Law School believes the state has reached a "tipping point" where the number of older attorneys leaving practice will exceed the number of law students entering the market.

Don LeDuc said he believes the state will be in "deficit mode" where there are more jobs than lawyers for about 20 years.

"There's such talk about too many lawyers and no jobs," LeDuc said. "In two or three years, we will be producing fewer new admissions to membership than the numbers leaving membership in the same year."

Cooley Law School graduated 996 lawyers in 2011 and 918 in 2010, according to James Robb, associate dean for development and alumni relations at Cooley.

LeDuc points to a demographics report put out by the State Bar of Michigan that found 53.4 percent of the active members of the state bar were born before 1961. The survey also found that 11.1 percent (or about 3,716 lawyers) of the active bar members were born before 1944.

Citing data from the State Bar, LeDuc contends that 55.6 percent of the active Michigan bar members were 50 years or older in 2010 and 29.6 percent were 60 and older.

On average, the state will need 992 lawyers each year in the next decade to replace these older lawyers, LeDuc contends. With a shortage of lawyers, LeDuc fears the people hurt the most will be the ones relying on court-appointed attorneys. LeDuc said with a shortage, there would be fewer going after the court-appointed cases.

But some Jackson and Washtenaw County attorneys are skeptical about the near future producing a lot of job openings.

Brendon Beer, a Jackson attorney with Abbott, Thomson & Beer, said older attorneys tend to stick around.

"Lawyers don't retire," Beer said. "Some have not prepared financially for retirement, some identify themselves as lawyers and retirement would mean a loss of that identity, others simply love what they do. The reality is that if you want/need to work, being a lawyer is a job you can do for a very long time. It is warm in winter, cool in the summer and there is no heavy lifting."

"I understand that law schools like Cooley want to create the image that there is job availability in the legal market because their graduates are struggling to get jobs and law school graduates struggling to find employment is bad for business. However, I would not tell potential students that the aging legal population will translate into jobs. I have seen that theory proven false. When I started as a lawyer 10 years ago, after graduating from Cooley, I made the foolish assumption that these lawyers I saw in their fifties, sixties and seventies, would be retiring. Ten years later, they are in their sixties, seventies and eighties, and I work with them every day."

Dennis Whedon is a Jackson attorney who retired 10 years ago but still pays his dues to the state bar. Whedon said he knows many of the older attorneys in Jackson County.

"There are some who are going to be retiring in the relatively near future and some who have semi-retired and are practicing on a limited basis," Whedon said. "I don't see a shortage of lawyers; maybe a shortage of people with a depth of experience. But graduating more lawyers isn't going to change that. The people I talk to in Jackson have indicated to me that there is a lack of work for lawyers. I believe that results from too many lawyers."

Ann Arbor Attorney Steven Tramontin said he hadn't heard any talk about older attorneys leaving and creating more jobs.

"Statistics and conversations with colleagues led me to the conclusion that the legal job market is quite saturated," he said.

Tramontin said he sees more and more newer attorneys singing up for court-appointed cases and volunteer positions. "I assumed this was because the job market in terms of the larger and mid-sized firms is highly competitive.

Tramontin said in his experience, the lawyers he deals with in court are mostly in their 50s and 60s.

"A lot of new attorneys aren't necessary younger, they may be getting into law as a second or third career," he said. "In general, looking around the majority of attorneys you see in court are older. This may be due to younger law firm attorneys paying their dues doing behind-the-scenes research and writing."

Tom Oldakowski, an Ann Arbor attorney who has been in practice for two and a half years, said the supply of attorneys right now outweighs the demand.

"I do a see an aging job force for attorneys, but I don't see them retiring," he said. "The attorneys I know usually work part time or go into mediation. Of the attorneys that I know who claim they retired, a few them are still working part time and a few of them have opened mediation practices. That doesn't create too many opportunities for others to break in. If you are at the top of the field and know everything about it, why would you retire? That is a thought that most attorneys share."

Published: Mon, Jul 9, 2012

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