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Problem Solvers: Offices of Oregon Lawyers
by Annette I Shelton-Tiderman
Published Apr-22-2014

Central to all offices of lawyers is the attorney - either the sole practitioner or the association of attorneys in a firm. Oregon's professional problem solvers tackle legal questions and associated issues ranging from the most complex business ventures to counseling a client on the rights and responsibilities of a home-owners' contract, and everything in between. Playing a role in many aspects of social and business interactions, these highly educated, well-trained individuals are typically called upon only when there's a problem. It's been said that attorneys are like insurance, there's no substitute when you need one!

Laying the Foundation
Data and information about this industry are available from several sources, in particular, the Oregon State Bar (OSB) and the Oregon Employment Department (OED). The Oregon State Bar, established in 1935 by the Oregon Legislative Assembly, licenses lawyers and regulates the practice of law - an individual cannot practice law unless admitted to the bar. The OSB, a public corporation, also tracks its members' employment status and demographic characteristics, most recently reported in the Oregon State Bar 2012 Economic Survey, posted on their public website.

Oregon Employment Department data are based on tax records from those businesses participating in the Unemployment Insurance Program -- business entities which have employees. Since many of Oregon's attorneys are owners, e.g., partners, shareholders, or sole practitioners, information about these non-employees is not available from OED records. Considering that in 2012 the Oregon State Bar survey reported only 50 percent of Oregon's attorneys were salaried or hourly employees, combining information from these two extensive sources provides a solid view of the overall industry.

Offices of Lawyers Reflect Oregon's Diverse Population and Geography
Oregon's population is found predominately along the Interstate 5 corridor stretching from metropolitan Portland south to the cities of Eugene and Medford; the Bend metropolitan area is located in central Oregon. The state's larger law firms are more commonly located in these highly populated areas, reflecting, in part, the concentration of commercial business activities and the associated needs for legal resources. The statewide marketplace for legal services, as viewed by geographic distribution and population density, is shown in Graph 1.

The Portland MSA, encompassing five of Oregon's 36 counties, accounts for two-thirds of the state's employment in offices of lawyers and 60 percent of Oregon's law firms. The discrepancy between percentage of employment and percentage of firms indicates the presence of large legal firms in this area. Multnomah County is home to 65 percent of the metro area's law offices; Washington County accounts for 16 percent; Clackamas County for nearly 15 percent; Yamhill County for almost 3 percent; and Columbia County for 1 percent of this metropolitan area's law offices.

According to the OSB 2012 Economic Survey, 56 percent of Oregon attorneys work in offices with one to six lawyers; 20 percent of the state's attorneys are found in offices with seven to 20 lawyers; and 24 percent are in offices having more than 20 lawyers. Oregon's more rural coastal communities were found to have the largest percentage of one-lawyer offices.

Graph 1
Employment in offices of lawyers 2012
Supply and Demand: Employment Reflects Changes in the Economy
Since employment in law offices is dependent on the presence of an attorney, the number of individuals entering the practice of law has an important ripple effect. Reports from the National Association for Law Placement reveal the close relationship between the economy's health and employment rates of new law school graduates. Just prior to a recessionary period in the early 2000s, nationally, the class of 2000 reported a 90 percent employment rate; as the economy slowed, this rate continued to drop steadily until 2005. Yet, by the time the economy peaked in 2007, that year's law school graduates reported a 92 percent employment rate. The effects of the Great Recession noticeably reduced employment opportunities: declines for the class of 2008 (90% employment) continued through the class of 2012 (85% employment, rates not seen since 1994).

During economic slowdowns, several common shifts in employment have been observed. Established firms may elect to hire an inexperienced attorney in a less-expensive paralegal position. Or, the new attorney, having not received an acceptable job offer at a firm, may opt for self-employment. The decrease in hiring and resulting over-supply of new attorneys has also been confirmed by a recent report from the American Bar Journal (June 2013) which listed its top-10 states having the highest law school graduate "glut"; Oregon ranked eighth with 2.98 law graduates for each job opening. Responding to this generous supply and resulting decreased demand for attorneys, law school enrollments have also declined in recent years.

Graph 2 looks at employment growth rates for Oregon and U.S. law offices. Both areas' rates peaked in 2007 and 2008, corresponding to the overall state of the general economy. To adjust for the wide discrepancy between national employment totals and those for just Oregon, the data have been indexed to reflect employment growth rates (2001 was selected as the initial year, and values were set equal to 100.0).

Graph 2
Employment growth rates for offices of lawyers 2001 = 100
Marshalling Problem-Solving Resources
To provide the legal services sought by clients, offices of lawyers employ individuals in a variety of occupations. The resulting staffing patterns reflect the size, scope, and needs of the law firm's practice. For example, the sole practitioner might employ someone to handle basic office procedures; the larger firm might add receptionists, secretaries, accounting staff, office manager, and paralegals. Table 1 shows the variety of practice areas for Oregon attorneys and staff.

Although some changes in law firm staffing have been attributed to the economic downturn of the Great Recession, shifts had been underway for a number of years. Information shared by the OSB, as well as practicing attorneys, highlights the increasing importance of technology. Instead of relying on the traditional role and duties of the office legal secretary, today's lawyers often find it more efficient to use a computer to prepare their own documents. Also, it has become commonplace for attorneys to directly send correspondence to clients by e-mail. Cloud technology is enabling firms to nearly eliminate the need for IT assistance. Virtual offices may still be a vision of the future, but numerous services are now available online such as receptionists, virtual secretaries, and paralegals.

Table 1
Areas of Practice for Attorneys in Private Practice
General and Other 23%
Civil Litigation 19%
Business 14%
Family Law 12%
Tax-related 9%
Personal Injury 8%
Criminal  5%
Real Estate 5%
Bankruptcy 3%
Workers Compensation 3%
Source: Oregon State Bar, 2012 Economic Survey
Projected Demand Shows Change and Overall Growth
Reflecting changing economic resources and expectations of clients, the traditional model of an adversarial approach to problem solving is giving way to the increasing use of alternative dispute resolution methods. Discussions with legal professionals suggest generational differences in communication styles which, in turn, are changing the methods used when seeking resolution to a client's legal concerns. Problems continue to arise, but incomes often cannot absorb the legal expenses associated with a traditional win-lose scenario. By taking a more collaborative problem-solving approach, expenses can often be reduced, and the time needed to come to settlement is lessened.

In addition to this mix of tradition and fast-paced change, attorneys and their staff counsel clients and tackle legal questions and associated issues. To meet the ongoing needs of clients, overall employment in the legal services industry is projected to grow. Table 2 highlights typical occupations found in this industry and the projected demands for employment between now and 2022. Note: although the legal services sector is made up predominantly of offices of lawyers, it also includes offices of notaries, title abstract and settlement offices, and all other legal services.

Conversations with Oregon attorneys reflect that whether the firm is the sole proprietor or is a partnership of attorneys who own the practice, business success depends on the credibility of the attorney and all who work in the legal offices. As a heavily regulated and scrutinized industry, the expectation of honesty is clearly evident; whether it's the judge in a courtroom or the legal colleague, today's legal professionals are held to high standards. Employment opportunities in the offices of lawyers are available across the state and offer interested and trained individuals a challenging work environment. While not immune to the ebb and flow of the overall economy, this industry's focus on legal problem-solving ensures its place in the business of Oregon's citizens.

Table 2
2012-2022 Employment Projections for Select Legal Services Occupations in Oregon
Occupation 2012 Employment 2022 Employment Percent Change Growth Openings Replacement Openings Total Openings
Lawyers 3,158 3,717 17.7% 559 506 1,065
Legal Secretaries 2,891 2,882 -0.3% 0 348 348
Paralegals and Legal Assistants 1,532 1,942 26.8% 410 249 659
Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks 443 510 15.1% 67 41 108
Receptionists and Information Clerks 420 435 3.6% 15 113 128
Office Clerks, General 379 421 11.1% 42 80 122
Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive 325 298 -8.3% 0 39 39
Supervisors and Managers of Office and Administrative Support Workers 157 181 15.3% 24 37 61
General and Operations Managers 89 102 14.6% 13 17 30
Billing and Posting Clerks 69 79 14.5% 10 13 23