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By Kenneth Kirk
For Senior Voice 

Why is it so hard to find a lawyer in Alaska?


May 1, 2024 | View PDF

In the movie “War of the Roses”, a lawyer (played by Danny DeVito) mentions that he charges $450 per hour. This was in 1989, but even then, as a young attorney just starting out, the number seemed startling. “Why,” I thought to myself in the darkened theater, “do lawyers cost so much?”

I learned part of the answer pretty quickly. The lawyer doesn't get to put all of that money right into his pocket. There are a lot of expenses that go with running a law office, such as rent, secretarial staff, Bar dues, computers, insurance, and office supplies. All of that, and the fact that the attorney cannot necessarily bill and get paid for every minute of the working week, counts for more than half of it. But it is still a lot of money.

But even at these prices, in Alaska especially, the bigger problem today is how to even get an attorney.

I have been seeing this a lot in probate, although I'm sure it is also a problem for those who need an attorney for a divorce, to evict a nonpaying tenant, to defend a criminal case, or to collect on a judgment, among other things. Why is it so hard to find a lawyer in Alaska now?

Part of the problem is that we have an aging Bar. The number of new attorneys who take the bar exam each year is less than half what it was when I took the exam in 1987. And with so many older attorneys in practice, when the pandemic hit, a lot of them decided to call it a career and fold their law practices. Others have become so overloaded that they have stopped taking new clients.

But that begs the question: Why are new lawyers not coming to Alaska anymore? And the answer to that is that the cost of becoming a lawyer is too high.

You sacrifice a lot to become a lawyer. Almost all law schools require a bachelor’s degree to even get in, and that typically takes four years. And then law school is three more years. That is seven years that you could have been working and making a living. But the cost of tuition is really what hurts. I did a calculation last year, and adjusted for inflation, the cost of tuition at my law school would have been $31,560 per year. But the actual tuition there last year was $74,098 per year. That means that even adjusting for inflation, the tuition has more than doubled. And my law school is not an outlier.

What that means for almost all law students, other than a few with wealthy parents, is a lot of student loan debt. Seven years of these kinds of numbers, and a newly minted lawyer can easily start out with $300,000 of student loan debt weighing them down.

That means they don't have the option of pursuing the romantic dream of moving to Alaska and starting a practice on the frontier. They pretty much have to take that large firm job that will work them 60 hours a week but will allow them to pay that crushing student loan debt. We don’t have those big-firm jobs up here.

So the law schools are largely to blame. But why should a new lawyer need seven years of college and law school to begin practice? It wasn't always that way. In Abraham Lincoln's day, you became a lawyer by working as a clerk in a law office, and studying during your spare time. In my grandfather's day, many lawyers got an LLB, a Bachelor’s degree in law, then they could take the bar exam.

And there are some states, including California and Washington among others, where someone without a law degree can engage in an internship with a law firm, and then eventually take the bar exam and become a lawyer. But we don't have that option in Alaska.

So in the meantime, what do we do? The court system, to its credit, has been trying to solve the problem. In family law, where the lack of lawyers is probably the worst, they have a “family law self-help center” to assist people who represent themselves. We don't have that for probate cases, but there are forms available on the court system website that people can use. The problem is that people don't know how to use them. Even with the forms, they need lawyers to help them figure out the next steps.

Shakespeare had one of his characters (a villain, for what it is worth) say “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers”. If he lived here today, he would have to find one first.

Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult a professional who can take all the facts into account. I know, good luck with that.


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