Attorneys Paul Gaus, an associate at McCormick Barstow, LLP in Fresno, and Christina Tillman, a partner, stand outside the Fresno County Superior Courthouse. Gaus left the larger city of Minneapolis about two years ago to take a job at the Fresno firm and plans to stay here. Photo by David Castellon.
There was a time when young adults were anxious to become lawyers, but Janice Pearson, dean for San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis, said she recently encountered a situation that hit home how much that has changed.
“I literally had jobs posted today for four full-time law positions,” but Pearson said she knew of no recent graduates looking for work to refer to the potential employers.
“Right now, we have so many jobs for lawyers, and we have no one to send.”
Dan Underwood, chief deputy district attorney for Tulare County, said his office also is feeling the effects of the trend, as the early part of the year usually is when law firms are most heavily recruiting new lawyers.
Normally, by now the DA’s office — which usually has at least one opening for a lawyer at any given time — would have 15 to 35 resumes submitted by job applicants, but so far this year only 10 have come in, he said.
“This year, the number of applications definitely is the lowest I’ve seen by far — at least by 50 percent,” Underwood said.
Deborah A. Coe, the newly elected president of the Fresno County Bar Association, said, “I think anecdotally it is believed there is a shortage. It just seems we’re not getting as many applicants as we used to.”
Underwood said he has heard similar comments from people at other DA offices and public-service agencies across California that hire lawyers.
The shortage seems not limited to just California.
WorldBridge Partners, LLC, an international job recruiter with clients that include law firms, posted on its website that the legal industry, like several other industries, is having trouble hiring qualified job candidates.
In fact, the problem of low enrollment in law schools in recent years has forced some to merge or shut down, with Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa’s 2017 closure among them.
But the challenge of finding and hiring lawyers tends to be more acute here in the Valley and in other rural areas of the U.S.
Simply put, local lawyers contacted said, living and practicing law in Fresno, Visalia or Hanford just doesn’t have the luster of working in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or some other bigger cities.
Nor do law firms here generally offer pay and benefits as good as those in bigger cities, said Fresno attorney Ben Nicholson.
That put Valley law firms and public agencies at a disadvantage for hiring counsel and associates even before the lawyer shortage manifested, said Deanne Peterson, Tulare County counsel.
In fact, she said her department — like many public agencies — has been challenged in hiring lawyers looking to stay in public service, as many get the training and experience they need and then move on to more lucrative jobs, either here or in other cities, particularly the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The problem of having enough lawyers — particularly qualified ones — comes at a time when the demand for lawyers is rising, at least here in the Valley.
“This economy is growing, and because this economy is growing, the legal community is growing,” Pearson said noting that when most Valley residents leave here to attend law school, most who graduate tend to stay away.
“And we don’t have enough people going to law school here locally to fill the job positions that are available.”
As for why fewer people are becoming lawyers, WoodBridge Partners’ website states, “That’s partly because between 2008 and 2012 most law firms cut their trainee intake, which meant that fewer trainees qualified in disciplines such as banking, corporate and property law.”
And many law firms reduced hiring during the Great Recession, that may have dissuaded some people from applying to law schools, “and we’re just feeling the effects now,” said Nicholson, the partner overseeing hiring at McCormick Barstow, LLP, which he estimated to be the most active hirer of lawyers among Fresno private-practice firms.
“Law school has become really, really expensive, and it has become more expensive over the years,” and students may not want to incur such heavy student debt, Coe noted.
For her part, Pearson said the legal profession has lost some of its luster, as many young people see getting into technical fields, including videogame designing, as a better career option.
It may not have helped that California altered its bar exam from a three-day process to two days in mid 2017, she added.
Among the changes that entailed was shifting the multiple-choice section from counting as 33 percent of a score to 50 percent, said Pearson, adding that answering multiple-choice questions requires more detailed knowledge of the law, and those whose knowledge isn’t so high may not score as well under the new testing criteria.
“Since that has happened, the pass rate has declined and there are fewer people to fill attorney positions,” she said.
The numbers seem to bear that out, as State Bar of California data shows that the percentage of people who passed the July 2018 bar exam in California — both first timers and repeat takers — declined to 40 percent, nearly nine percentage points down from the July 2017 test.
Pearson said her law school’s pass rate for people taking the test for the first time also suffered, dropping from 59 percent to 33 percent over the same percent, “so we’re very concerned about it.
Underwood said his boss, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, is trying to rally local interest among young people to get into the legal profession by developing programs with the College of the Sequoias in Visalia and Porterville College that introduce students to law.
While attorneys said the lawyer shortage hasn’t reached a crisis stage here in the Valley, some firms have resorted to taking actions they haven’t had to do before, including advertising that they have openings or reopening application periods because they didn’t get enough qualified applicants the first time.
“Ultimately, we are still able to fill our hiring needs … but we’re working a lot harder to do something that used to come easier,” Nicholson said.
But the worst may be over, he said, noting that hiring in the legal industry can be cyclic, “and I believe we are heading for an upswing.”