Attorney Pool Aging, Shrinking, Threatening Justice Access

Nov 25, 2019

Alaska Bar Association President Rob Stone talks about challenges for Bar members in the coming year.

The landscape for legal services is about to shift in Alaska, as more older attorneys retire. A lot of Alaska’s 4,500 or so practicing attorneys started out in the 1970s or 1980s, and are getting ready to leave the profession. The Bar Association is worried about a brain drain that might hurt Alaska consumers. 

The Alaska Bar Association is the non-profit organization that provides continuing legal education, coordinates volunteers to offer pro-bono services, and monitors and disciplines attorneys in the state.

“Its an interesting landscape in that you have a lot of senior lawyers with a lot of experience, and as they retire, you lose that knowledge, you lose them as mentors.”

Rob Stone is the president. He says there is no shortage of attorneys right now, but he anticipates retirees leaving will increase the “Justice Gap” between those who have access and those who don’t.

“Unfortunately, I think that means there will be fewer lawyers to choose from. If the bar isn’t growing as fast as lawyers are retiring – we’re not doing it right now, but you can see it coming in the future – that would likely lead to a shortage of lawyers for consumers.”

So you might think ‘what’s the problem, let’s just recruit more lawyers.’ But Alaska’s standards are higher than other states, and not everyone makes the cut on the uniform bar exam to practice here.

“Somebody may have taken the bar exam in Oregon, and scored high enough to be admitted to the Oregon Bar, but not high enough to be admitted in to the Alaska Bar. So the Alaska Supreme Court just looked at that, the Board of Governors (of the Bar Association) just looked at it, and quite a bit of time analyzing whether we should lower that score.”

Stone says the court concluded they would leave the cut score as it is.

Stone, whose office is in Anchorage, visited Fairbanks to attend the installation of Superior Court judge Brent Bennett, tour the Rabinowitz courthouse and meet with the Tanana Valley Bar Association.

Attorneys in Alaska are required to join the Bar Association, which charges dues that can be a barrier to someone just starting out.

“Newer lawyers, coming out of law school, will have a tremendous amount of debt. Bar dues are expensive. So we’re doing things to keep those Bar dues where they are; we haven’t raised dues in many, many years.”

On the plus side, Alaska has a reputation for a high-quality bench – the judges. Alaska is unique in the system we use to seat our judges, that are neither political appointees nor elected. We use the Judicial Council.

“Through the Judicial Council, you have members of the Bar, the Court System and the Public. So you really have a system that is merit-based. And because of that you have a really good bench – highly intelligent, capable, great judicial temperament.”