Legal Landscape
Opportunities, challenges, and new developments in Alaska’s legal services market
By Lincoln Garrick

he legal industry consists of services providing legal advice, assistance, or representation; notarial activities; and research in criminal and civil litigation. Some firms focus exclusively on drawing up legal documents and advising clients on legal transactions. Many lawyers based in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau specialize more narrowly in just a few legal disciplines, while those based in rural Alaska often practice more broadly in several areas of the law. Nationally, only 3 percent of civil cases go to trial, so alternative dispute resolution methods—such as mitigation or arbitration, where parties work to reach a mutually agreeable solution to their differences—have become a growing sector for active and retired lawyers.

Who Are Alaska’s Lawyers?

A ten-year analysis of the Alaska Bar Association’s annual member survey shows a population with an aging pool of lawyers, an increasing number of active Alaska-practicing lawyers located outside of the state, and a gender disparity that’s improving, albeit slowly.

In the last decade, there has been a 240 percent increase in the number of retired members within Alaska Bar Association membership, from 270 individuals identified in 2012 to 650 individuals in 2021. This is not really surprising given the relatively young age of the state and formation of the Alaska Bar in 1955, and the increase indicates a robust group of interested, but not actively practicing, advisors and mentors.

Ensuring lawyers are reflective of the people they serve—with diverse cultures, experiences, and backgrounds and at all levels of law firms—is a national movement and a goal that Alaska also aspires to.

Lawyers tend to be older than most US workers, with a national average age of 46.5 in 2021 compared to the median age of 42.2 for all US workers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are few lawyers younger than 25, due to the lengthy educational requirements, and many lawyers work past age 65. Alaska lawyers are even older than the national average, with just over half of all active Alaska lawyers being more than 50 years old in 2022.

Another expanding segment is active and practicing Alaska lawyers who live outside of the state. This group has expanded 144 percent during the last ten years, with 609 individuals reported in 2012 and 877 individuals in 2021, which is about 28 percent of all active Alaska lawyers. There are likely several explanations for this, including Alaskans who live in multiple locations over the course of a year, lawyers who may choose to practice in multiple locations to better serve their corporate clients with multi-state businesses, and perhaps the inception of digital nomads within the legal profession—people who travel freely while working remotely using technology and the internet.

Forty-one percent of all active Alaska lawyers identify as female, which is an increase of close to 3 percent from 2014, when gender was first reported by the Alaska Bar. In 2021, the American Bar Association reported nationally that 38 percent of lawyers were female, and the percentage of women in the profession is growing at roughly one-half of 1 percent per year, with a small number of lawyers (0.2 percent) stating they are neither male nor female. Alaska appears to be performing similarly to national gender equality trends.

Aspiring to Reflect Clients

Ensuring lawyers are reflective of the people they serve—with diverse cultures, experiences, and backgrounds and at all levels of law firms—is a national movement and a goal that Alaska also aspires to.

In 2020, 94 percent of all Alaska lawyers identified as non-Hispanic whites. By comparison, 64.1 percent of all Alaska residents were non-Hispanic whites in 2021. Nationally, nearly all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession compared with their presence in the US population. This is mirrored in the state, as the Alaska lawyer population comprises no more than 2 percent of any underrepresented group.

In 2020, of the 2,281 active in-state lawyers, 46 were Alaska Native, 30 Asian, 27 Hispanic or Latino, 20 Black, 17 Native American, 5 Indian Subcontinent, and 1 Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. This is compared to the racial makeup of the state, with 14.8 percent of people identifying as American Indian or Alaskan Native, 7.5 percent stated as Hispanic or Latino, 7.1 percent listed as multiracial, and 6.4 percent identifying as Asian.

The Alaska Bar Association has acknowledged that its current membership does not reflect the diversity of Alaska. In May of 2021 it created a diversity commission with the goal of creating a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse organization and to increase the membership of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals.

The barriers for becoming a lawyer are numerous, including a difficult school admissions process, years of rigorous training, and educational costs that can result in six-figure student loan debt. In addition to the time and financial barriers of starting in the profession, there is also a challenge navigating the legal education environment. A lack of connections and a healthy skepticism of the objectiveness of “the law” have been identified, nationally, as contributors for lower numbers of underrepresented racial groups pursuing the legal profession.

How Is The Pay?

According to the BLS, the national median annual salary for 2021 was $127,990, while Alaska lawyers’ median annual salary came in at $103,680. Interestingly, Alaska lawyers at the bottom third of the state’s earners outpace the bottom third of national wages. This suggests that new lawyers in Alaska earn more than their national peers. Individual regions within Alaska, such as Fairbanks, pay at different levels during various stages of a law career and potentially have higher costs of living. Fairbanks-based lawyers tend to earn less compared to their national peers over time, while Anchorage-based lawyer wages track competitively with national salaries.

It is important to consider there are many different fields in law, and that is reflected in how much lawyers earn. Some career paths lead to higher pay than others, and notably some lawyers don’t have set monthly incomes if their income is derived mainly through contingency fees.

Alaska lawyers’ wages have been right in the middle for the last five years, 22nd out of 50 states, according to the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Where Do Alaska Lawyers Come From?
Building the legal pipeline and narrowing the “justice gap,” which is the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and available resources, is a major goal within Alaska’s legal industry.

Alaska remains the only state without a law school. In 1975, former state attorney general John Havelock issued a 240-page report, Legal Education for A Frontier Society: A Survey of Alaskan Needs and Opportunities in Education, Research and the Delivery of Legal Services, examining the need, supply, and growth of law-related services and the options for legal education. Nearly thirty years later, Mary Killorin with the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research asked similar questions about the current and future demand for lawyers in the 2004 report An Alaskan Law School: Is it feasible? This study focused on identifying how many Alaska residents want to go to law school, the cost versus benefit of building such a school within the statewide university system, and what might be alternatives to a traditional law school.

As of today, Alaska still imports all of its lawyers. Alaskans wishing to earn a law degree can do so a few different ways: 1) leaving the state and attending one of the 199 American Bar Association accredited law schools, or 2) attending one of the UAA campuses that have pre-law bachelor’s degrees and partnerships with a variety of Lower 48 schools (including Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon; University of Washington School of Law in Seattle; and Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio). This latter path provides qualified students the opportunity to earn a baccalaureate degree in Alaska and law degree outside but on an accelerated schedule—typically in six years instead of seven.

A new path as of fall 2023 is 3) the Alaska Pacific University (APU) MBA/JD dual degree program, which provides an accelerated path for both of those graduate degrees. In this program, MBA instruction is provided by APU and JD instruction is provided by Seattle University School of Law through flexible part-time hybrid-online delivery.

According to Alaska Bar data from 2006 to 2021, the ten most attended law schools of active members include the following, each with more than twenty-five alumni: Seattle University School of Law, Lewis and Clark, University of Washington School of Law, Vermont Law & Graduate School, University of Oregon School of Law, Willamette University College of Law, Gonzaga University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, University of Minnesota Law School, and University of Montana School of Law.

The Alaska law community has been characterized as especially collegial due to its size, with small degrees of separation between one’s peers. Alaska lawyers recognize that they all attend law school out of state and then choose to return.

What Do Alaska Law Firms Look Like?
There is no universal agreement about what is considered a “big” law firm, but a general consensus is that 15 or fewer lawyers are a small firm, 16 to 350 is medium sized, and a larger firm would usually have multiple locations and well over 350 to 1,000 lawyers. By that definition, the vast majority of Alaska law firms are small, with few exceptions.

According to the State of Alaska’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage data from January to December 2021, Alaska’s 294 legal services firms paid just under $69 million to workers in legal occupations. Federal workers in “legal and kindred services” occupations are not included in that number and are a significant employer of lawyers, according to the US Office of Personnel Management, with 192 individuals in attorney and support roles in September 2022. The largest legal employer is the State of Alaska, with a bit more than 200 individuals employed in the Department of Law and Alaska Court System, which includes judges, magistrates, attorneys, and clerks, as well as paralegals and all support workers. Roughly 67 percent of the staff within the State of Alaska’s Department of Law have law degrees.

Another employment path for Alaska lawyers is serving as in-house counsel for a corporation’s law department. These individuals are charged with handling legal issues affecting the company, including employment, policy, tax, and regulatory matters. Often they also have managerial roles, overseeing work outsourced to attorneys at independent firms.

A notable difference between Alaska and the national legal market is the urban nature of law firms. In December of 2013, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in reported, “78 percent of legal jobs and 70 percent of firms were all based in a single city: Anchorage.” This has not shifted significantly over the last ten years, with 75 percent of legal jobs and 63 percent of firms in Anchorage.

The Frontier of Alaska Law

The Alaska Bar Association has identified the following change initiatives for the near future: expanding efforts to reduce the “access to justice” gap while exploring solutions to build attorney pipelines to Alaska; increasing public service and efficacy of Bar activities, which includes efforts to better engage rural and younger lawyers; and advancing efforts to ensure the Bar is more reflective of the people it serves in Alaska, which includes education on cross-culture awareness and promoting diversity.

The Supreme Court of Alaska recently adopted Rule 43.5, which is a waiver creating a “para-professional” law role. These are non-lawyers who can provide legal assistance in a limited capacity in civil matters under the supervision of Alaska Legal Services Corporation with the intent of narrowing the justice gap. Not unlike physician assistants and dental health aides, these individuals may bring legal services to some of Alaska’s most remote communities.

The impact that technology could have on legal services in the future is yet to be fully appreciated. Artificial intelligence, big data, and online courts are all changes that could be coming to the legal profession. Tomorrow’s lawyers will likely utilize these evolving systems to solve their clients’ problems.

Lincoln Garrick headshot
Lincoln Garrick is an assistant professor, MBA director, and alumnus at Alaska Pacific University. He has more than twenty years of experience in the business, marketing, and communications fields providing public affairs and strategy services for national and Alaska organizations.