PROGRESS 2022: Tech, coffee joints offer hope for aging attorney pool
ALPENA — Alpena attorneys with many miles behind them worry they can’t retire because nobody will take their place.
In a region in which 80% of attorneys are 50 or older — compared to 60% of active attorneys statewide in that age range — few fresh faces means residents may soon struggle to find legal help, whether for family cases, assistance with wills, or fighting criminal charges.
Today’s attorneys can handle the current workload, many say, but they are stretched thin by the needs of the region, and they will have to stretch even further as local lawyers reach retirement age.
However, technology such as courtroom videoconferencing and online self-help guides can help bridge the gap for residents who can’t find an attorney, and a state push to improve services for those who can’t afford an attorney also helps attorneys earn a living wage.
As well, some hope recent economic development in the region could attract more talent.
Local attorneys hope such efforts entice more people into a profession that’s struggling to engage new, young workers.
When a local law firm handling exciting cases and offering good pay recently posted a job opening to thousands of law students preparing to graduate, it received zero responses.
“Not a one,” said Dan White, a longtime Alpena defense attorney who recently moved into semi-retirement.
He would retire entirely, but his firm can’t find anyone to take his place, White said.
Local employers of all kinds could benefit from a shared video library introducing those not from the area to Alpena’s vibrant downtown, its restaurants, and other perks potential employees may overlook, he suggested.
“It’s become a vibrant community,” White said. “But how do we convey that when they’re just looking at a map and saying, ‘What’s up there?'”
UPPING THE PAY
Legal work in the Alpena area means more one-on-one time with clients than in urban settings, said Beth Reed, recently hired as assistant prosecutor for Alpena County.
As a prosecutor in Colorado, Reed and her office handled tens of thousands of cases a year to Alpena County’s several thousand, and attorneys practiced in front of several dozen judges instead of the small handful in Northeast Michigan.
In big cities, “You don’t have faces that go with names,” she said. “You have pieces of paper.”
The more intimate nature of small-town legal work appeals to some, but attorneys may turn away from the region for practical reasons like lack of housing and ability to pay the bills.
She easily found a home in Alcona County when she moved to the area recently, but a potential move to Alpena may not happen because, while houses sell for far less than in Colorado, they go quickly, and there aren’t enough to go around, Reed said.
Attorneys fresh out of law school may hesitate to come to an area where firms pay less than in cities, especially with hefty student loans to pay back.
People assume attorneys always make high salaries.
They don’t, Reed said — and low salaries hit young, debt-ridden attorneys even harder.
According to the American Bar Association, the average law school student graduates with more than $150,000 in debt, and, as law school costs rise dramatically, starting salaries at even big law offices have barely increased over the past several decades.
When Reed first moved to Alpena, she took on some family law cases on her own. County commissioners’ decision to up the pay at the Alpena County Prosecutor’s Office, making it a living wage, offered the incentive Reed needed to take a position that opened there, she said.
Commissioners recently approved the hiring of a second assistant prosecutor, a position necessitated by an increased workload that Reed said was brought on by the vigorous work of the Northeast Michigan Regional Defender Office established in Alpena last year.
That office, funded by the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, handles criminal cases for people who can’t afford a lawyer. The financial help of the state and recent guidelines ensuring public defenders are properly compensated for their work mean that office stands a better chance of hiring the help it needs.
All the same, said Rick Steiger, chief defender for that office, a recent job posting netted only one resume.
He is eyeing retirement, and other attorneys at the office have logged many years’ experience. For now, the office is fully staffed, but, “in five years, I don’t know where we’re going to be,” Steiger said.
When he emerged from law school, he and his classmates were lucky to find one job opening. Now, law firms and attorney offices across the state are going begging, with no new blood coming down the pipeline, Steiger said.
He worries as he hears of other local attorney retirements and as his colleagues age, unable to pass along their experience to new lawyers.
FILLING THE GAPS
Some holes left by a lack of attorneys — or by the inability to pay for legal help — have been filled, at least in part, with the help of technology, said recently retired Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack.
With 85% to 90% of residents unable to comfortably afford legal help, according to studies, more lawyers would not sufficiently fill the gap between residents and the help they need, McCormack said.
To fill that gap, the state has supported initiatives like Michigan Legal Help, an online clearinghouse of self-help guides — accompanied by stations like one recently opened at the Presque Isle District Library in Rogers City, which offers a trained navigator to assist users.
The state has also backed MI-Resolve, an online service helping parties solve their legal disputes with the help of a trained mediator.
Other states support workers who provide legal help without full attorney credentials, much as a nurse practitioner would triage medical problems, and Michigan might follow suit, McCormack said.
Technology pressed into service during COVID-19-related shutdowns gave people without attorneys greater access to courtrooms, letting them videoconference in from their homes or jobs and reducing the impediment of transportation, a common issue in a rural area.
That technology, if continued, opens doors to justice, regardless of the attorney pool, McCormack said.
That kind of tech may also attract younger attorneys to Northeast Michigan, said Reed, of the Alpena County Prosecutor’s Office.
Lawyers fresh out of school expect good internet service and high-tech tools, and any money invested in that direction ups the chance they will come here, as will the introduction of fun places to spend time and meet new people, Reed said.
“You’ve got a Starbucks, now,” Reed said, noting other national chains expected to open locally. “That maybe helps.”