On September 20, I had the privilege of participating in two swearing-in ceremonies for new admittees to the Washington bar. The ceremonies were held in the courtroom of the King County Superior Court presiding judge. This was my introduction to what has become a traditional KCBA-sponsored event; for Judge Susan Craighead, whose term as presiding judge ends this year, it was her last opportunity to host the event and administer the oath that accompanies the transition from law student to practitioner. KCBA thanks her for graciously partnering with us in this event throughout her term.
City Attorney Pete Holmes and City Councilmember Reagan Dunn joined us in addressing the new lawyers, along with KCBA YLD trustees Vincent Nappo of Pfau Cochran and Miriam Gordon of Lasher Holzapfel. Each offered inspiring words of welcome, congratulations and advice. KCBA thanks them for their contributions to a memorable ceremony for the new admittees and their guests.
What can I tell you about our newest members of King County’s legal community? First, they work hard and they study effectively. A total of 757 graduates sat for the bar exam this summer; 533 (70%) passed. A little more than half of those who passed live in King County — an overwhelming majority of whom graduated from one of our two stellar local law schools. Indeed, in case there was any doubt about our law schools’ commitment to students after graduation, representatives from both the University of Washington and Seattle University were present at the ceremonies to honor their graduates, including SU Dean Annette Clark.
Second, they are a diverse group, inclusive of men and women of varying ages, individuals who identify as LGBT, and representatives of several racial and ethnic backgrounds. Some are the children of attorneys and it was moving to witness these parents introducing their children to the court. Others are uniquely inspiring first-generation college graduates. Some are on their second careers. One completed law school at night while working as a firefighter during the day.
On a discouraging note, ABA statistics suggest that the diversity represented by this group may not translate into a more diverse profession 5 or 10 years down the road. Using women as an example (only because the statistics are readily available for women as compared to other diverse attorney groups), they made up 47.8 percent of law students in ABA-accredited laws school in the 2013–2014 academic year, but only 36 percent of licensed attorneys in 2016. Each of us needs to do more to welcome and support diverse attorneys at the start of their careers and at every step along the way, hopefully working in partnership with them to pave a more inclusive and supportive path for those who follow in their footsteps.
Finally, all are enthusiastic! (If only we could bottle and sell that positive energy.) Even those who have yet to settle on a first job are hopeful and with good reason. Recent experience with the 2015 graduating class from UW suggests many who have yet to find work will in the next several months. Although 86 percent of the 2015 graduating class are currently employed, only 55 percent had jobs at graduation. Similarly, by March 15 of this year roughly three-fourths of 2015 law grads from SU were employed in jobs that require a bar certificate. Nationally, employment statistics suggest the job market is improving for law grads.
What are the job options for today’s law school graduates? Law firm employment still captures the majority, with the median salary for a first-year associate hovering at $135,000. However, some data I reviewed suggest that fewer than half of all starting associates are likely to move into equity partner positions. Increasingly, equity partnerships are offered to lateral hires instead of associates within the firm’s existing associate pool, suggesting promotional opportunities are highly competitive and dependent upon business generation, a skill set that is not part of the standard law school curriculum.
It is well known that women and diverse attorneys are particularly under-represented in law firm partnership ranks; either equity or non-equity. While there may be a variety of factors contributing to this disparity, inadequate institutional commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion remains high on the list.
For example, 2015 survey data published by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) suggest that very few law firms provide any training addressing unconscious bias, micro-inequities or meaningful strategies for achieving diversity and inclusion.1 Law firms as employers need to do more to create meaningful opportunities for all of their new attorneys to develop successful practices, advance within the firm’s promotional structure, and hold leadership positions either within the firm or the broader professional community. KCBA provides a wide range of leadership opportunities through the Young Lawyers Division, committees, sections and the King County Bar Foundation and KCBA boards.
Of course, there is a wide range of job opportunities outside of the traditional private firm setting that law graduates are successfully pursuing. At least two of our new admittees are focused on public interest with plans to do volunteer work with KCBA’s Housing Justice Project. One of the many new lawyers I spoke with wants to find a job that focuses on developing and supporting in-house privacy and confidentiality programs. Two others are international students who just completed LL.M. degrees and want to work on international business and intellectual property transactions. Their skills may be well suited for an in-house counsel position with private businesses or technology companies.
Employment prospects aside, should these recent law school graduates be hopeful about their professional futures? Yes, they should! A friend recently asked me if I would recommend law school to a young person seeking my advice on career planning. My answer is “of course!” The swearing-in ceremonies underscored for me the many reasons why I remain hopeful about the future for all law grads, and our newest admittees in particular.
Law school prepares one to pursue many different pathways over the course of a professional life. My own career is illustrative. I started as a litigation associate in a private law firm. After becoming an equity partner, I left with another female equity partner to establish our own small, boutique litigation practice. Five years later, I chose to return to an academic setting, pursuing an MPH degree and joining the faculty at the UW Law School in a part-time capacity.
The next fork in the road led me back to practice, this time in the public sector, as an assistant attorney general, and now I am in-house supporting business transactions that promote my organization’s educational, research and health care delivery mission.
Along the way I’ve served many clients, including state agencies, and volunteered on behalf of my community and its neediest citizens. I’ve always been intellectually engaged, professionally challenged, and able to earn more than enough money to contribute to my family’s support. And my colleagues have been and continue to be hard-working, intelligent, fair-minded professionals who never forget their obligation to give back to their community.
While varied opportunities for professional growth and satisfaction are worthwhile considerations, the most compelling reason to become a lawyer relates to the training and expertise that uniquely position lawyers to confront and resolve the most pressing legal, social and economic challenges of their time. Today’s lawyers have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to confront and dismantle laws that contribute to pervasive economic inequality, institutional racism, health disparities and disproportionate access to the justice system.
We can and should serve as champions for legal reforms that promote the environment and access to high-quality education. Many among us are business leaders, community leaders and government officials who inspire confidence. Working with our new admittees, we can and we will shift the tone of public discourse in a direction that once again emphasizes integrity, professionalism and public service.
Please join me in congratulating and welcoming our new admittees.
1 L.S. Rikleen, “Women Lawyers Continue to Lag Behind Male Colleagues, Report of the Ninth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms,” National Association of Women Lawyers (2015).