Monday, September 24, 2018
Business

Florida's swollen ranks of lawyers scrap for piece of a shrinking legal pie

Ask Jason Fraser how many jobs he applied for after graduating from law school last year and this is what he says:

"Maybe 10 or 20 when it was someplace I wanted to work. Maybe 50 when I started getting desperate.''

After searching from Ocala to Miami, Fraser finally landed a public defender's post in Pasco County in June. But his months of job-hunting raises another question, one that nags at many in the legal profession:

Does Florida have too many lawyers?

Since 2000, the number of licensed attorneys has swollen from 60,900 to 96,511. In the same period, five new law schools have opened, cranking out even more lawyers to join those bemoaning the diminished rewards of their chosen career.

"Now it seems you work harder to make half of what you did in 1998,'' said Angela Wright, a Tampa criminal defense lawyer. "The economy is a reason but also the fact there are a whole lot more attorneys.''

Almost half of the lawyers who responded to a Florida Bar survey last year cited "too many attorneys'' as the most serious problem facing the legal profession today. That exceeded "difficult economic times'' and "poor public perception,'' which many blamed in part on relentless TV advertising, such as that by big personal injury firms.

The same survey found that 25 percent of lawyers in private practice had "adjusted'' their fees. Half said they didn't expect things to get better any time soon.

Of course, lower legal fees are good news for those needing legal services. And some big corporate law firms are hiring again.

The glut of lawyers may be easing, too.

Eight of Florida's 12 law schools saw a drop in enrollment last year. And faced with law school bills that can top $120,000, many people might be rethinking a profession with a median starting salary in Florida of only about $45,000.

Says LeRoy Pernell, dean of Florida A&M University's law school:

"The old ways of going to the top 10 cities and the top 10 law firms — they're not going to do it.''

• • •

Given that Florida is a nice place to live in a booming part of the country, it's hardly surprising that a lot of lawyers would hang up their signs here.

Guy M. Burns, managing partner of the Clearwater-based firm Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns, is among those who think Florida has a surplus of lawyers. He also thinks that's true nationally, for reasons that go back decades.

Until the 1980s, Burns notes, most people with a bachelor's degree could count on finding good jobs, often with big companies where they could spend their entire working lives.

But as corporate America downsized and shifted more operations overseas, "the ability to get a job with a major corporation and make a career started getting less and less,'' Burns said. "People perceived the law business as someplace I can go and insulate myself from the vagaries of the economy.''

Florida had 27,000 licensed attorneys in 1980. Within 20 years, the number had more than doubled. Still, most lawyers did well until the economy tanked in 2008.

Holland & Knight, one of the nation's larger law firms, laid off dozens of attorneys. Other firms froze hiring.

Hard hit also were criminal defense lawyers in private practice.

Before the recession, defendants often "had a relative that had a home with some equity'' and could pay the legal fees, said Luke Lirot, a Clearwater lawyer. "That's vanished.''

Now, many people who once might have afforded a lawyer get a public defender. And when the public defender has a conflict of interest, most indigents are represented by the new Regional Conflict Counsels instead of by court-appointed private lawyers, as in the past.

The result, Tampa lawyer Rick Terrana said, is a "vicious world'' in which more lawyers are fighting over fewer paying clients.

"You have all these young lawyers that are undercutting other lawyers and ultimately themselves by handling cases for fees that are a fraction of what they should be,'' he said. Fees for some drug trafficking cases have plunged from $15,000 to as low as $1,500.

Terrana, who has been practicing for 25 years, also handles personal injury cases.

That too has been a tougher field for solo practitioners and smaller law firms.

"The problem with the PI field is advertising,'' he said. "It's hard to compete with the Morgan and Morgans. When you're able to spend a million bucks a month, you're capturing a big audience.''

• • •

Even as veteran lawyers grumble about slow business, Florida law schools churn out more than 3,000 would-be attorneys every year. The challenge is finding them jobs.

Schools accredited by the American Bar Association must file reports showing students' employment status nine months after graduation. At Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville last year, the unemployment rate was 30 percent. At the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, it was 26 percent.

Two other private schools, the University of Miami and the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, had far better track records. Less than 6 percent of their 2013 graduates were unemployed. However, those figures were helped by programs in which the schools themselves hire grads or temporarily pay their salaries in government or nonprofit legal jobs.

Among the 33 recent beneficiaries of Stetson's "Bridge to Practice Fellowships'' was Jason Fraser.

After graduating, he wrote to numerous public defenders and state attorneys. "I had a couple of interviews,'' he said, "but for the most part I never heard from them or I'd get a letter two or three months later.''

Starting in February, Stetson paid his salary for a three-month internship at a Regional Conflict Counsel office. In June, he landed the public defender's job in New Port Richey.

Mindful of the job crunch, Stetson cut the size of last fall's entering class to 229 full-time students, down from a pre-recession peak of about 280. That means fewer graduates looking for work two years from now.

"I think it was a very responsible thing for Stetson to do and something we have done since 2010 when the market began to experience difficulty in the job placement area,'' said Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, the dean.

Enrollment also dropped at Florida State University College of Law, from which Kate Zucco of St. Petersburg graduated in 2012. She applied for so many jobs, she kept track of them on a spreadsheet.

Happily, Zucco found work within a few months at a firm that represents insurance companies. She likes the job but not the "six figure'' debt she owes on student loans.

She also worries about what's in store for her and other recent graduates.

"I feel like we'll have a hard time getting new jobs and moving around because there are so many kids graduating from law school who will work for less.''

• • •

One big firm that has continued to hire entry-level lawyers is Tampa-based Carlton Fields Jorden Burt. But the numbers have slipped from an average of 15 a year to eight or fewer now.

"Demand is still contracting for legal services across the country, and what that means is that probably there is still too much supply for too little demand,'' said Gary Sasso, the firm's president and CEO.

Another large firm, Johnson Pope, has started hiring again after a no-growth period. However, two of its recent additions had what Burns, the managing partner, calls "unique practical experience'' before getting their law degrees.

One had been a civil engineer, the other chief operating officer of a home builder.

"The lawyers that I see successful … are people that focus their practice in one discipline or another,'' Burns said. "They wind up not only rendering a higher level of service but also doing better financially.''

So what's the advice for those considering law school or soon to graduate? Until demand better meets supply, Pernell of Florida A&M's law school predicts that many new lawyers will have to use their education in "nontraditional ways.'' Among them: working for businesses instead of law firms.

Some could also wind up in jobs that don't require a law degree — last year, at least 136 graduates of Florida law schools landed in such positions.

Pietruszkiewicz, Stetson's dean, advises interning, then working in a public defender, state attorney or U.S. Attorney's Office.

"Those aren't the same salaries as you receive working for a New York or Tampa or Orlando law firm,'' he said, "but it certainly provides you with the skills to then translate that into a criminal defense practice or a civil practice.''

And, he added, "there are many small towns in Florida in which general practitioners are more than welcome and ultimately very successful.''

Matthew O'Brien, who graduated from Stetson last year, started his job hunt a bit slowly because he was helping his parents sell their self-storage business. He has stepped up the search — aiming for a prosecutor's job — but after numerous feelers is still looking.

"At this point in time,'' he said, "I've come to the realization I'd really like to have a paycheck at some point.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

 
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