“There are no jobs! There are no jobs! There are no jobs!” This not-so-secret mantra is repeated by new lawyers across the country. In a world where only 57% of the class of 2013 had secured a job within nine months of graduation, legal watchers have proposed a simple solution: graduate fewer lawyers to fill fewer jobs. Simple yes, except it abandons a whole generation of attorneys to under- and unemployment. What do we do with those tens of thousands of young people who have taken out enormous student debt in order to become lawyers? Is our solution simply to leave them behind?
We don’t have to, because here’s another not-so-secret about the legal industry: there are jobs, there really are, but no one wants them. In a piece written in last month’s ABA Journal, journalist Lorelei Laird writes about rural counties throughout this country, in particular the Midwest, that are in desperate need of young lawyers to take over practices run by aging and retiring attorneys: “Those still practicing law in small towns are often nearing retirement age, without anyone to take over their practices.”
As we’ve written about here, our profession does continue to show its age. In Illinois alone, 44% of our 91,000+ lawyers are over the age of 50. Nationally, that number is approaching 50%. And of the 1,310 members who responded to a recent survey by the Illinois State Bar Association, 26% were solo practitioners. Average years of practice for these solo practitioners? 26.
With so many practitioners simultaneously aging and practicing in solo firms, part of our industry is on a crash course to face on of the biggest challenges in preparing for retirement: finding a successor. And it’s no easy task.
“The idea of selling your practice requires you to plan. It’s extremely important,” said John Mayville, a solo practitioner out of Belvidere, IL. “And part of that plan is to find people who would be good candidates [to take over].”
Mayville has been very active in helping other solo practitioners in the state. Mayville became licensed to practice in 1967 and has been a solo practitioner since 1980, though he’s recently added two associates to his firm. He served as the Illinois State Bar Association’s chair of General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section from 1998 to 1999. He helped get Illinois Supreme Court Rule 1.17 —which outlines policies for selling a practice —adopted in 2009. After that he put on seminars around the state to better inform practitioners of how the rule would be carried out.
And part of that involved advising people where they could find buyers, he said. It can be a challenging process. Mayville said he often recommends office-sharing partners—where practitioners bring in another lawyer to share their office and secretarial staff.
“You know them,” he said. “You have some idea of who you’re dealing with and what kind of reputation and ability they have.”
If practitioners can’t find a good candidate to share an office with, Mayville suggests looking to young lawyers in nearby firms, or, if they’re lucky enough to be near one, cultivating a relationship with a law school.
“I haven’t myself but, I’ve suggested to people they develop a relationship with a placement director,” he said.
The key is to start early and to keep a list of possible candidates you can develop along the way, Mayville said. There are a fair amount of resources offering advice on succession planning for solo practitioners. There are how-to articles in bar journals, and seminars, both online and in person, hosted by state bar associations.
But what if you don’t practice near a law school or your nearby pool of candidates is sparse? A rural area, for example. In an effort to both connect retiring solo practitioners with possible successors and keep lawyers in rural areas, some state bar associations have developed programs dedicated to recruiting young lawyers for solo firms and rural practice.
South Dakota recently launched its Project Rural Practice Program to connect young lawyers with communities in need of lawyers and solo practitioners in need of a successor. Following the South Dakota project, the ABA passed a resolution supporting the program and encouraging other states to take similar measures. Last year, the Maine Bar Association started an informal program last year that connected new graduates with rural attorneys looking for successors, and has plans to hopefully formalize it.
Other state bar associations are increasingly creating groups to focus on rural attorneys, if not specifically on connecting them to solo practitioners. The Utah State Bar Association has a Solo Firm and Rural Practice Section, devoted to what they describe as the “largest practice [area] in the state.” Bar Associations in Iowa and Colorado also have committees devoted to rural law practice. The ABA Journal article cited above also reports that states like Georgia, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire are all looking at developing, or have just launched similar groups.
Unfortunately, John Mayville said he’s not aware of any kind of formal program connecting new grads with solo practitioners, operating or in the works, here in Illinois—though he said there could be informal programs in some areas. But he said something similar could be a very good idea for the state. He suggested a centralized location, such as an online database, where recent graduates could submit their name, information and interests, and practitioners could use to locate young attorneys with whom they want to work, develop and mentor.
We at the Commission hope that the many bar associations in Illinois can work together to develop a rural matching program, a program that can be extended to cities across the state including here in Chicago with half of this state’s lawyers. And maybe that mantra of “There are no jobs! There are no jobs! There are no jobs!” can be replaced by a shorter, better one: “There are jobs! And here they are.”
Lindsey Lusk, our intern from the University of Illinois College of Law, contributed to the writing of this post.