We’re No. 4 in attorney growth! (Or are we?)

By Dave Stafford • dstafford@ibj.com

 

On paper, Indiana’s legal community appears to be among the healthiest in the nation. On paper, Indiana’s legal community also appears to be the weakest in the nation.

The American Bar Association reports the number of resident Hoosier attorneys grew 26.1 percent in the last decade — tying with Texas for the fourth-greatest increase among all states and the District of Columbia. Separately, the ABA reported the number of Indiana lawyers declined 14.7 percent last year.

Neither number is quite as hopeful or as dire as they seem. Still, many lawyers who’ve looked at Indiana’s lawyer population numbers, even with a skeptical eye, see a mostly rosy picture for the legal community here.

“Even if the numbers are not as good on the high side as they first appear, we don’t believe things are really down,” said Ice Miller LLP chief managing partner Steve Humke. “Our experience is we have not seen an overall growth in legal spend — and that’s not just us, but the overall legal market — but we haven’t seen a shrink, either.” The state’s legal economy “has held up very nicely under a lot of stress,” since the Great Recession that began in late 2007, he said.

 

How many lawyers?

It turns out counting lawyers long-term is a little like herding cats. The ABA relies on states to report the number of resident attorneys for its National Lawyer Population Survey, but that isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

Indiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan explained there more are than 22,000 people registered on the Indiana Roll of Attorneys. For ABA reporting purposes — its survey wants only the number of active, resident lawyers — that number was 15,826 in 2017. There are 2,711 non-resident lawyers, and 3,609 who are inactive.

Many states, including Indiana, changed their methods of reporting once or more over the past decade, leading to sometimes-wild fluctuations, the report explains in numerous footnotes. Indiana in some years was unable to report just the number of resident attorneys, so it also included active out-of-state lawyers. In other years, ABA notes, the state appeared to underreport the number of resident attorneys.

So, a true comparison with 2007 isn’t possible, because in that year, Indiana reported 12,546 Hoosier lawyers. The ABA survey is dubious of that number and those of the years that immediately followed, noting the state “began using a new system for attorney registration leading to greater accuracy in reporting in 2012.” That year, the state reported 15,512 lawyers.

Ice Miller’s Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer Patricia Batesole noted that in the past five years, using the consistent and reliable measure of actual resident attorneys in Indiana, the growth rate is just over 2 percent. Projected backward, that rate of growth in the resident attorney population would place Indiana closer the bottom of states.

But the ABA survey makes clear that counting lawyers isn’t a problem just for Indiana. For instance, the stats show an impossible 84 percent spike in the number of lawyers in Maryland from 2016 to 2017. The ABA explains this anomaly is due to a change in reporting method by which the Old Line State can no longer distinguish between resident and non-resident lawyers.

 

Steady work

Numbers aside, Brad Schwer, partner-in-charge of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP’s Indianapolis office, said Indiana’s legal community is doing fine. “The legal market right now is very competitive,” he said. “The economy is fairly good, too.”

Bryan Babb, chair of the Appellate Services Group and a member of the Litigation Group at Bose McKinney & Evans LLP, said there are multiple reasons he wouldn’t be surprised if the number of Indiana lawyers has risen notably in the past decade, even if not at a 26.1 percent clip. He said the state’s financial health is good relative to neighboring states, and that’s attracted regional law firms that have set up shop here.

“They view it as an opportunity to expand in a state, and a capital city of a state, where things financially are on a pretty solid footing,” Babb said.

Additionally, he said the north Indianapolis suburbs have gained a national reputation in numerous quality-of-life rankings, and the state’s trial and appellate bench are respected nationally. “Lastly,” he said, “you have a really perfect size of an area to practice law, where it’s going to big and diverse enough to be interesting … (and) small enough (that) it’s typically a very nice place to practice law because we see each other fairly regularly.”

Schwer cited another trend he’s seen at Taft: “We’ve been very successful in attracting lawyers from larger markets and larger law firms.” He said the firm has brought on talented attorneys, especially in transactions and mergers and acquisitions, from giant law firms such as Kirkland & Ellis LLP and McDermott Will & Emery LLP in Chicago and Fried Frank LLP in New York.

“They want to have a life. They want to have a family,” Schwer said, and escape what he called “stratification” of the legal profession, where lawyers may be expected to churn work at upwards of $1,500 per billable hour.

He described in stark terms why the Indianapolis market may be attractive to such lawyers: “Younger lawyers, they just realize how stupid it is just to destroy your life in these big cities doing this.” Here, he said, they “can have a great practice and a great life and not really take too big a hit in compensation” because of the lower cost of living.

Humke said cost of living and a friendly business climate also are keeping demand for legal services steady, and he’s optimistic those factors will spur continued investment, particularly in tech sectors.

“If you have a choice of growing in New York or San Francisco or Indiana, a million dollars goes a lot further in Indiana than it does in other places,” he said.•

Originally published in the Indiana Lawyer