California Bar Journal
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California Bar Journal

The State Bar of California


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Front Page - April 1999
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Legal specialist exam set Aug. 19
Sullivan to take reins at Stanford Law School
Only two appointed members remaining on State Bar board
Legal services board has five vacancies
Davis taps Michael Kahn
State Bar honors Justice Mosk with Witkin Medal
Board tentatively approves budget based on dues of $384
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If it distracts, so be it
Let's cut back on jury service
Limit bar to admissions and discipline
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From the President - Door to justice must be open
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Letters to the Editor
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Law Practice - Preparing for a successful mediation
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Appointments - Apply to serve on a bar committee
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Legal Tech - DSL speeds up Internet - at a reasonable price
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New Products & Services
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MCLE Self-Study
Taxes and long-term care
Self-Assessment Test
MCLE Calendar of Events
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Trials Digest
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Ethics Byte - Fiduciary duties basis for all rules
Attorney nabbed at State Bar offices for soliciting murders
Attorney Discipline
Ethics for the 21st Century - A canon for the future
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Public Comment
Lawyers losing grip on state legislatures
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nounced. In 1969, 61 percent of New York's state legislators were lawyers; today, 34 percent are. In California, the figure has fallen to 22 percent from 48 percent 30 years ago.

In 1976, when the National Conference of State Legislatures first surveyed legislators around the country about their professions, 22 percent called themselves lawyers. (The survey understated the true number, because each lawmaker could give only one response, and many said "legislator," rather than naming prior careers.) When the survey was repeated in 1995, 15 percent said they were lawyers. No one profession rose to fill the gap; there was a general increase across many fields.

So where have all the lawyers gone? Not surprisingly, the answers have to do with money. Over the last generation, the money to be made practicing law has soared, particularly in major cities where lawyers had strong holds on legislative seats, and where the starting salary at some firms was $90,000 or more.

Until this year, only one state, California, paid its legislators more than $60,000 a year. (Because of pay raises that took effect in January, California's legislators now earn $99,000 each, while New York's average almost $90,000 in salary and stipends.) Last year, legislators in 39 states were paid less than $30,000, according to the conference of legislatures.

Not so in Washington

Lawyers still dominate Congress, where the annual salary is $133,600, and the expense allowances are generous. According to Congressional Quarterly, 43 percent of the seats in Congress are held by lawyers, but even that figure is well below the 58 percent held in 1969.

In many states, being a legislator has become a full-time job, or at least a part-time one that makes it hard to manage another career. In the late 1960s, the average state legislature was in session three months of the year, but in the late 1990s, the average has grown to five months.

"The amount of time required of them back home has grown even faster, with all the constituent service and campaigning," said Karl T. Kurtz, director of state services at the conference of legislatures, which is based in Denver.

A different era

Thirty years ago, it was common for legislators to have thriving law practices. It was even good for business, older legislators say, adding to the resume a title that impressed judges, attracted clients and promised a little more clout with government agencies. But these days, far fewer lawmakers try to balance two careers.

When Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was first elected to New York's Assembly in 1976, he intended to keep working in his three-person law practice. "My partners quickly became disenchanted with how little time I had for the work, and we dissolved that partnership," said Silver, now the Assembly Speaker. "I don't know of any young legislator who even tried to maintain a law practice after being elected."

Another factor dissuading lawyers from entering public life was the post-Watergate wave of financial disclosure laws, which forced lawyer-lawmakers in many states to reveal more than they might want to about their practices and their clients.

When he was Assembly Speaker in California, Willie L. Brown, a Democrat who is now the mayor of San Francisco, had an active law practice, and was frequently accused of conflicts of interest.

Of the lawyers who have been elected to legislatures, many never practiced law but spent their careers as legislative staff members or government bureaucrats, or worked in business or the financial sector.

"The decline of lawyers is even more dramatic than it appears, because a lot of these legislators who have law degrees and are technically lawyers were never really lawyers," said A.G. Block, editor of California Journal, a monthly magazine on state government and politics. "When I went to law school in the 60's, most of the people in law school went on to practice law. Now, it's more an educational tool to learn a critical way of thinking, particularly for people who want to go into government."

While the pull toward public office has diminished for lawyers, it has grown for others, in part because the federal government has given more authority to the states. Legislatures are now important to nearly every profession or interest group.

"The legislatures have become much more important to teachers, insurance agents, small businessmen, doctors, you name it," said Kurtz. "So it has become a more attractive target for people in all of those professions."

A melding of interests

The freshman class in Albany, N.Y., is filled with people for whom state law and politics were never far from their lives. "My work was almost like being in politics anyway," said Cymbrowitz, a new assemblywoman from Brooklyn who raised money and did marketing for hospitals and social service agencies. "My clients and I had to be so politicized and so adept at dealing with government to survive. That wasn't true a generation ago."

Cohen, the former transit worker who is a new assemblyman from Queens, was active in the politically powerful transit unions and was elected to his local community board. Duane, the former stockbroker and a senator from Manhattan, was active in the gay rights movement and served on the New York City Council. Hayes, an assemblyman from the Buffalo area, and Mills, an assemblyman from the Catskills, were elected members of their town councils while working as fundraisers for colleges, and Mills was once an aide to a Congressman. Hevesi, a senator from Queens who is the son of New York City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, has worked on political campaigns and worked as a budget analyst in the Queens borough president's office.

Does it matter that there are fewer lawyers making law?

Analysts say they cannot point to any area of policy that has been notably altered by the trend, although some argue that the recent spread of state laws restricting lawsuits and damage awards might not have happened.

Diversity a plus

In the recent past, it was more important that the people making law be people who knew the law. Thirty years ago, legislators often wrote their own bills.

But the growth of legislative staffs over that time means that in nearly every state, any legislator who has never cracked a law book can call on professional legal advice to draft bills.

There is general agreement, even among the lawyers, that greater diversity in a legislature is a healthy thing.

"There's a much wider range of interests and concerns represented these days than there used to be, so it's less insular," said Block. "I mean, if you're drafting a farm law, shouldn't there be a few farmers?"

Besides, Cymbrowitz asked, wouldn't a legislature with fewer lawyers be a little less combative?

Res ipso loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.

Copyright 1999 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.