ALPENA — With more than two-thirds of its attorneys 60 or older and few young attorneys moving north to replace them, Northeast Michigan residents may have to wait until busy lawyers have time to handle their legal needs, local attorneys say.
As the 77 older lawyers in the area’s aging pool of attorneys set aside their briefcases in coming years, they will leave behind full client loads and only a handful of young attorneys to take their place.
Those new attorneys will also have to work with a changing judicial roster, with three new Northeast Michigan judges in two years as of Nov. 1. With at least one Alpena attorney moving up to the bench, that will further deplete the pool of local attorneys.
Local attorneys say few young lawyers want to come to Alpena to practice, while our region produces few homegrown lawyers. In the past decade, no more than two Northeast Michigan-based attorneys joined the bar in any given year.
“We’ve got more work,” said Alpena lawyer Dylan Wallace, struggling to find someone willing to move to Alpena to join his legal team. “And we need more attorneys.”
Alpena struggles to draw new lawyers, in part, because the cost of law school turns many prospective attorneys away from considering the job at all, in any community, according to Alpena attorney Dave Funk.
In the 1970s, he paid $375 per term in law school tuition, plus another $300 in books.
Now, new attorneys enter their careers with $100,000 to $200,000 in student loan debt and have to work somewhere they can earn enough to pay that back, he said.
Alpena may not fit that bill.
In 2020, the average Northeast Michigan attorney earned $200 per hour, lower than the state median of $275 per hour, according to the State Bar of Michigan.
Even if they’re willing to accept possible lower pay, young lawyers may not find a welcome among the older generation practicing in Northeast Michigan, Funk said. Older lawyers won’t always want to teach the competition, Funk said.
But lawyers need to embrace that kind of mentorship to keep Alpena’s jurist community strong, said Keith Wallace, former city attorney for Alpena who now works at an Alpena law firm. He’s distantly related to attorney Dylan Wallace.
The knowledge Keith Wallace acquired in his 53 years practicing law will be lost if he can’t pass it on to young attorneys, he said.
Alpena’s current range of attorneys can meet any legal need, but, “we need new blood,” Wallace said.
Traverse City and Petoskey have many more attorneys than they need, Wallace believes.
Grand Traverse County counts 454 attorneys, about 40% of them younger than 50. About 140 attorneys work in Emmet County, home to Petoskey, according to the State Bar of Michigan.
Two attorneys who recently showed interest at working in Alpena ended up taking positions in those counties instead, according to Dylan Wallace.
Dylan Wallace said he’s actively recruiting attorneys to the Alpena practice he started in 2014, but “It’s hard to get people to even sit down and talk about it if they’re not from here.”
He sees an increasing number of job openings listed on a recruiting tool for legal firms across the state — a far cry from the job shortage for attorneys he encountered when he graduated from law school 10 years ago.
Alpena needs more lawyers, he said ― especially after some local attorneys retired in recent years and others moved to other positions, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s appointment of attorney Lora Greene as Montmorency County probate judge this year.
One attorney missing from the local pool of lawyers may not sound like much, but all Greene’s clients still need representation, and another attorney with an already-full workload will have to find time to help those people, Dylan Wallace said.
The current lawyer pool will get the job done, but full schedules mean clients may need to wait longer on less-urgent matters while their attorneys work overtime to keep up with their caseloads, he said.
One of several Alpena attorneys with family members also practicing law in the area, Dylan Wallace said connections within the community help him get and work with clients.
Alpena embraces its own, he said — a plus for attorneys who grew up here, but challenging to lawyers considering moving to the area.
In June 2020, attorney Dan Harris, based in Petoskey, purchased the law office of a long-time Alpena attorney.
Harris wanted to expand his practice — which also maintains satellite offices in Gaylord, Rogers City, and Detroit — into Alpena to take advantage of a void he saw in the area.
Between retirements, aging attorneys, and lawyers shifting to new positions, Alpena’s shrinking bar means opportunity, the lawyer said.
His employees come mostly from Northeast Michigan. The city has welcomed him, he said, and — with 12 attorneys spread across several locations — he thinks he can offer a range of services out of reach by most Alpena firms with smaller staffs.
Just over half of Alpena County attorneys work in a private practice. Two-thirds work in firms of two to 10 employees. The remainder work either full- or part-time in a solo practice, according to the State Bar of Michigan.
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On Friday, a year after passing the bar, Emilee Manning started her first day working for Dylan Wallace’s firm after representing indigent criminal clients for the past year.
With family in the area and starting to put down roots herself, Manning, 28, said she’s content in Northeast Michigan — a promising place to launch a career, especially given the openings caused by pending attorney retirements and judicial appointments, she said.
“I think it’s a good place to start,” she said. “There’s a lot of open doors.”
Keith Wallace, near the other end of his career after a half-century on the job, remembers watching high school classmates move on to well-paying jobs at Ford or General Motors while he sat broke in law school.
Then again, those classmates didn’t get to spend a career knowing they helped people, he said.
“That’s worth more than money, in my estimation,” Wallace said.