Lawyers Face Lawyer Shortage in Yakima County | Crime and courts
Grocery store workers and restaurant staff aren’t the only jobs that are in high demand these days.
In Yakima County, lawyers are also rare.
“When we opened and posted our first position in 2013, 20 to 30 people applied,” said Tim Hall, a Hall and Gilliland partner in Yakima who is trying to fill a vacancy. “Now we receive one, two or three candidates.”
At the county level, Yakima County District Attorney Joe Brusic and Paul Kelley, director of the Court-appointed Counsel Department, are trying to fill vacancies in their offices.
“We’re all struggling to deal with the issue that we’re not getting candidates, and when we do, it’s a lateral move,” Brusic said, referring to when an agency prosecutor moves to a other. “Stealing Peter to pay Paul doesn’t help.”
The problem, according to Hall and others, is a combination of the lack of law graduates to replace those retiring or leaving the profession, as well as the challenge of repaying law student loans from the prevailing salaries offered in the Yakima Valley.
While Hall hopes economic forces will restore balance, Brusic said Yakima County is considering making its salaries more competitive, as well as reaching out to law schools to recruit. And a local university is partnering with state law schools to try to inspire more people of color to get into law and hopefully work in the community.
Currently, there are 438 attorneys in Yakima County, according to the latest figures from the Washington State Bar Association, which places it in the top nine in the state. That’s 1.4% of the state’s 31,124 attorneys, a figure that also includes those with inactive, honorary, or emeritus licenses as well as sitting judges.
One factor in the equation is that there are fewer law school graduates, lawyers say. When he attended Gonzaga University Law School in 2000, Hall said incoming classes were around 140 to 160, but jumped to 240 soon after, and in 2015 the numbers have dropped.
American Bar Association records show Gonzaga’s total registration in 2011 was 506, with the 2016 registration at 305 and climbing to 449 last year. The University of Washington School of Law had 545 students in 2011, down from 498 in 2017 and 492 last year.
Seattle University’s law school had 1,002 students in 2011, then grew to 609 in 2017 and 677 last year, according to bar numbers.
Brusic said fewer graduates are interested in becoming prosecutors, and he doesn’t think law schools actively encourage them to go in that direction.
“With the problems that police and prosecutors have locally, a lot of young people don’t want to enter those professions,” Brusic said.
Another factor is student debt. A law school grad can come out of school with $150,000 or more in student loans, depending on the school, which Hall and Brusic say may make a new lawyer think twice about accepting. a job that pays between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
Even with the 5% pay raise Yakima County commissioners recently approved to address staffing shortages, Brusic said the starting salary for an inexperienced prosecutor is $66,486. For one of the county’s public defenders, it’s $66,490.
Geography also works against recruiting attorneys, Kelley said, because some people may not be as interested in going to central Washington as opposed to a more populated area where salaries and job opportunities may be better.
And those who come from outside the region to work here may not stay long, Brusic said. He said they are the least likely to put down roots in the community and plan to move on in a few years.
Kelley said finding lawyers was a challenge before the pandemic, which hasn’t helped. It is trying to fill three vacancies to bring its staff to 20.
Like people in other professions, some lawyers have seen the pandemic-related closures as a way to re-evaluate their career goals and choose to retire or find another profession.
“Being a lawyer is a pretty stressful job,” Hall said.
And for Brusic and Kelley, vacancies mean their lawyers have to take on more work.
Brusic, who said his office is short of five lawyers, has prosecutors handling up to 120 cases a year.
“From my perspective, they work hard every day for the people of this county,” Brusic said.
Kelley attorneys are limited to the number of cases they can handle under state court rules. The rules ensure lawyers can effectively represent their indigent clients, with a limit of 150 criminal cases per lawyer per year. Kelley said the rules also weight cases based on the seriousness of the crime, which reduces the actual number of cases a lawyer can take on.
“So far so good,” Kelley said. “But if our numbers don’t improve and deposits increase, some decisions will have to be made about how to handle that and maintain the standards.
“It’s a delicate dance that we have to do to maintain it. We must be true to these standards or we will be in trouble.
“We want competent public defenders,” Brusic said. “We want them to work hard and do their jobs efficiently.” Otherwise, he said cases were thrown out on appeal because someone didn’t have an effective lawyer to represent them.
Hall hopes that economic forces will eventually solve the problem, as vacancies will encourage more people to decide to go to law school to meet the need and bring supply in line with demand.
Brusic said the county is looking at his salaries to make him competitive with other agencies, and he’s also considering going to law school job fairs to showcase the benefits of working as a county attorney. from Yakima.
“There’s more money in private practice, but what I’m emphasizing for lawyers here is that there’s a richness to this work that you won’t find in private practice,” said Brusic.
Heritage University in Toppenish announced this year that it is working with Seattle University, Gonzaga, and the University of Washington on a program to encourage students, especially Latino and Native American students, to consider going at law school. It is hoped that this program could result in more lawyers in central Washington.