Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2013
The results are in, and the Oregon State Bar’s 2012 Economic Survey shows some of the effects on bar members of the Great Recession and its aftermath.
Among the findings: The number of members in private practice continues to decline. It was 71 percent in 2002, and 67 percent by last year. In addition, 78 percent of OSB members were full-time lawyers a decade ago; 72 percent are today.
Average and median compensation increased, but less than in the previous two surveys, and from 2007 to 2012, median hours billed dropped by 20 hours per month, a 17 percent decrease.
These figures are “an indication of some of the challenges of practicing right now,” says Rod Wegener, chief financial officer for the OSB.
In 2012, a total of 8 percent of active members were either “part-time lawyers due to lack of legal work” (4 percent), or “working, but not in legal work and wanting legal work” (4 percent). By comparison, in the 2007 OSB survey, 3 percent of members were not working as an attorney, although that questionnaire did not ask for further detail, notes Wegener, who worked closely on the last five OSB economic surveys with an independent contractor who collected the data and prepared the analysis and reports.
Further, almost one-third of the newest OSB members not working as lawyers are those who have been members from zero to three years. Even many experienced Oregon attorneys are not working as a lawyer. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that partner layoffs continue at the 200 largest law firms as “firms grapple with continuing lackluster demand for legal services.” The newspaper noted that these partners’ hours billed has dropped about 30 percent from before the recession.
“You generally hear that getting more clients is hard to come by,” says Wegener. “It’s anecdotal, but you hear that in conversations you have with attorneys.”
The questions and format of the OSB’s 2012 Economic Survey closely resembled the previous five surveys the bar has conducted at four-to five-year intervals since 1994. The surveys’ purpose is to help the bar better understand and serve its members. The surveys are meant to provide educational information about the makeup of the bar, the compensation ranges of lawyers and judges, the average number of billable hours, and other facts, Wegener says.
Although the questions on the two-page survey have remained essentially the same, added this time were queries about members’ future plans, additional questions about those working but not practicing law, and — for the purposes of a forthcoming addendum report to be attached to the survey — profile characteristics such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, transgender identification, and physical or mental disability.
The number of female OSB members has increased about 1 percent every year since the 1994 survey, from 25 percent then to 39 percent by 2012. “It’s quite amazing how consistent that has been,” Wegener observes. “If that trend were to continue, by 2023 there will be as many active female lawyers as active male lawyers in Oregon.”
The median age for OSB members is 47, the same as in the 2007 and 2002 surveys.
By size of practice, the majority — 56 percent — of all OSB members practice in offices with from one to six attorneys. The number of these practices ranged from a low of 36 percent in Portland to the highest, 84 percent, on the Oregon coast.
He notes that 35 percent of respondents said they plan either to retire (18 percent), leave the profession but not retire (7 percent) or reduce their practice (10 percent).
Whether this many people’s leaving the law could open up new opportunities for newer attorneys is hard to discern, Wegener says. Though many members are approaching the age of 65, a number of them likely will continue to practice longer than they expect, he predicts, because of the recent poor economic environment and possible declines in members’ investment portfolios. In addition, their own health may allow them to work longer.
Although some growth has occurred in the number of bar members working in government (14 percent in 2002, 16 percent in 2007, 15 percent in 2012), and corporate (6 percent in 2002, 7 percent in 2007, 8 percent in 2012) while the number of members in private practice continues to fall, these figures don’t seem dramatic enough to fully explain where those leaving private practice are going. The only assumption that can be made is that they are simply leaving the practice of law, either by retiring or going into some other field, says Wegener. “There are no additional data to explain this beyond these comparisons.”
Salaries Vary By Practice Type, Setting
Even so, median compensation has continued to rise, just in lesser amounts than previously. Wegener explains that the median — the point in which half of numbers are higher and half are lower — is “probably a little more indicative of the profession as a whole” than is the average, which can be skewed by just a few very high figures. Thus, the median salary by survey was as follows:
- 1994 $58,000
- 1998 $63,090
- 2002 $78,000
- 2007 $90,000
- 2012 $94,743
Some of the most detailed data are of compensation. Tables were tabulated for compensation by: full-time and part-time, gender, age, years admitted to practice in Oregon, total years admitted to practice, type of employment, area of practice, size of practice, level of employment, method of pay and location of practice.
By type of employment, the highest compensated was corporate in-house counsel, and the lowest was private nonprofit. Salaries rose according to years in practice, with generally the larger the firm, the higher the compensation. By age categories, median compensation increased from the under-30 years category until the 50-59 years category, and then declined in the 60-or-over category.
For areas of employment in private practice, the highest compensation was plaintiff personal injury (median $150,000). The next highest area was business/corporate litigation ($132,462) and real estate/land use/environmental ($130,000). The areas reporting the lowest were general practice ($69,500), followed by family law ($65,000) and tax/estate planning ($65,000).
Compensation for criminal public defender ($60,000) and criminal public prosecutor ($83,000) were lower than most areas of private practice.
Average billing rates range from a low of $190 per hour for insurance defense to a high of $291 for civil litigation-defendant (excluding insurance defense). The highest median billing rate was $275 for both business/corporate-litigation and business/corporate- transactional. In general, the highest hourly billing rates were in Portland.
Average and median hours worked by full-time lawyers were fairly consistent throughout the seven regions of the state employed in the survey. The median hours worked per month for full-time lawyers was 180. Average pro bono hours spent per month were 9.2, and average community service — defined as volunteer service to charitable organizations, churches or other community services — was 12.1 hours. Community service hours have increased in each of the past surveys, from 10.8 hours in 1994, to 11.4 in 2002, to 12.1 last year.
The survey measured career satisfaction on a five-point scale with 1 meaning “very dissatisfied” and 5 “very satisfied.” Results were presented by gender, total years admitted to practice, type of employment, area of practice and level of employment. Satisfaction was reported for those respondents working as a lawyer, as well as for those not working as a lawyer.
Overall, Oregon attorneys, both male and female, rated their career satisfaction at 3.8. Those who were newest to practice (0-3 years) rated lowest satisfaction (3.4), while those in practice more than 30 years were highest (4.0).
There was a high level of career satisfaction (4.2) for those members “working but not in legal work and not wanting legal work,” but low career satisfaction if “not working” (2.4) or “working, but not in legal work and wanting legal work” (2.6). In addition, 60 percent with “very dissatisfied” legal career satisfaction plan to retire, leave the profession or reduce practice in the next five years, whereas only 29 percent of those who were “very satisfied” do.
Of respondents answering “not working as a lawyer,” those in practice from 0-3 years registered the highest numbers, at 32 percent, while those 13-15 years in practice were least likely to be not working as an attorney, at 4 percent.
Representative of bar members who are working, but in jobs that don’t require a law degree, is Bill Jones, an attorney in his late 20s who preferred not to be identified by his real name. He originally sought public service and would like to become a prosecutor. But despite not currently working as an attorney, he says he likes his present job as a disability analyst for an insurance company in downtown Portland.
A liberal arts graduate of the University of Oregon, Jones decided to pursue a legal career because he thought it was a good way to contribute to society. He started becoming disillusioned with the profession, though, after the law school he attended in another state pulled his scholarship after the first year, a practice he claims is “common practice” for law schools.
After passing the bar in that same state, he was hired by a federal government agency in a job that required a law degree, but one he calls “an attorney job in name only.” Unhappy, he left after a year and then eventually found his current position, which doesn’t require a law degree. “I feel very fortunate to have landed where I did, especially in a very poor job market,” he says.
Still, he feels some degree of bitterness, figuring he won’t be able to pay off the money he owes from attending law school until he’s in his 50s.
“Law school left me a large amount of student debt, and job opportunities in the profession are very few and far between,” he says. “It seems that there is a big disconnect between what law schools preach and reality.
“Law schools frequently claim 95 percent of graduates are employed six to nine months after graduation, but that’s clearly not true. Law schools are graduating a lot of dissatisfied, angry students. It’s a system that is not working well and doing a disservice to a lot of people.”
Jones says that although he feels he got a good education and enjoyed learning the law, he is not sure he would make the same decision to attend law school again, given the chance. “I don’t feel I got my money’s worth,” he says.
By area of practice, criminal-public prosecutor rated the highest in job satisfaction of all categories at 4.3; second was criminal-public defender, at 4.1. Next highest were business/corporate at 4.0 and real estate/land use/environmental law, 3.9.
By type of employment, judges/hearings officers reported the highest satisfaction rating (4.5), and those working in government second-highest (4.2). Members in private practice reported lowest satisfaction (3.8), with corporate in-house counsel second-lowest (3.9).
Karen Clevering, a 2008 graduate of the University of Washington School of Law, recently joined the Oregon Department of Justice’s Government Services Division. The year she graduated, she found law jobs to be virtually nonexistent. Over the next four years, she clerked for federal magistrate judges in Medford and in Portland, then applied for and landed her current position with the state.
Clevering is active in the OSB, serving as secretary of the Oregon New Lawyers Division Executive Committee, and is on the American Bar Association Young Lawyer’s Division’s newsletter editorial team. She is happy to have gotten a government legal position and says it allows her the opportunity to pursue these outside interests, as well as her longtime involvement with public service.
She is proud of the New Lawyers Division’s Practical Skills Through Public Service program, which has won two ABA awards, including the 2011 Project of the Year award. The program is an effort to help new attorneys find work by linking them as volunteers with public defender offices or legal aid clinics. Lawyer participants agree to volunteer for two to three months in one of these agencies.
“Last year we placed 30 or 40 new attorneys,” Clevering says. “The whole idea is to volunteer for three months to get experience in court, working with clients and serving those in need. It keeps people excited about what they can do with that degree even when there aren’t jobs readily available. The hope is that the practical skills they learn can transfer into skills in employment down the road.”
Cheryl A. Albrecht, a Multnomah County circuit judge since 2006, says she imagines judges share many common tenets that lead them to experience high levels of job satisfaction.
“We tend to be drawn to the law because of a fundamental desire to ‘do good,’ to make our world a little better than we found it,” she reflects. “Of all the roles one can fill in the legal community, judging may come the closest to fulfilling that motivation. Day by day, person by person, and case by case we get the opportunity to contribute our efforts to that goal in very real and sometimes dramatic ways. I feel that, through my judicial role, I’ve helped save a handful of lives.”
A woman who lived for many years on the streets as a homeless, heroin-addicted prostitute told Albrecht she was one of only two people the woman trusted, and that their discussions motivated her not to use drugs when she was close to a relapse.
“Sometimes judges shape the world in more subtle, yet equally significant, ways, say interpreting and applying a law in a ruling that may have far-reaching impact in the way businesses operate or the way the Legislature drafts a statute,” Albrecht adds.
She says judges find their work to be meaningful service, “an important part of the community at large.” In addition, they enjoy the variety of their jobs: “It can be frustrating sometimes to feel like you’re not mastering a particular area of law, but the flip side is it is rarely rote. We’re always on our toes and there’s always a new challenge around the corner.”
She also offers that “making decisions with a high degree of autonomy” naturally lends itself to job satisfaction.
Albrecht observes that judges “are privileged to bear close witness to the coursing tide of human experience in all of its manifestations. In that sense, judging is not only a profession, it is also a calling. And I’m not sure you can ask for any higher indicator of job satisfaction than being able to answer that call.”
The 2012 OSB Economic Survey, as well as previous surveys going back to 1994, can be found at www.osbar.org. Look under “For Oregon Lawyers,” then click on “Surveys and Research Reports.” Or follow this link: www.osbar.org/_docs/resources/Econsurveys/12EconomicSurvey.pdf.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and since 1991 has been a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 Cliff Collins