By Mike Wereschagin

TRIBUNE-REVIEW Friday, January 5, 2007

Go easy on the lawyer jokes. They're having a tough time these days.

It's harder for attorneys to find work in Allegheny County than in many other regions, due in part to Pittsburgh's industrial collapse, two law schools in the same city, and the steady erosion of the region's corporate base, said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association.

"Our population is more saturated than most," Blaner said Thursday morning. About 8,000 attorneys practice in Allegheny County, which has a population of about 1.2 million.

Blaner's description of a tight market wasn't exactly news to the 130 or so new lawyers who were sworn in to the Federal District Court of Western Pennsylvania yesterday in a ceremony at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. Several said they'd been told early in their studies at the law schools of Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh that it might be tough to find a job here.

"I started hearing about it during the admissions process" at Pitt, said Kerri Frederick, 28, of Aspinwall.

The number of lawyers per capita in Allegheny County -- about 650 attorneys for every 100,000 people -- is much higher than the national average of about 370 lawyers per 100,000 people, according to American Bar Association and U.S. Census records.

By comparison, New York City and Philadelphia have 860 and 890 attorneys per 100,000 people, respectively. Washington has the nation's highest concentration of lawyers by far -- around 7,470 per 100,000 residents, according to the same records.

Adding to the dilemma facing local lawyers, the number of attorneys in Pennsylvania is increasing faster, percentage wise, than in any other state, according to the American Bar Association. The number of attorneys practicing in the state rose from 38,460 in 2005 to more than 45,000 in 2006 -- an 18 percent increase. The next-fastest increase was in Wyoming, where the attorney population increased by about 5.7 percent in the same time period.

"There are more students who want to find positions outside the region than there were 15 or 20 years ago," said Pamela Day, assistant dean for career services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. "There definitely are more options for law firms out there with respect to candidates."

The school graduates about 240 a year, a number that has remained steady for several years, Day said.

"I think because you have two law schools in the area, that does create more competition" for jobs, Day said.

Lawyers here have a cushion, though, Blaner said. The Allegheny County Bar Association maintains a $1.3 million fund to provide grants or loans to members who fall on hard times -- such as those who lost offices or records in the 2004 floods. The 89-year-old fund is the only one of its kind, and usually helps six to eight people a year, said county bar association spokesman Tom Loftus.

The association offers a student loan repayment program through which recent graduates can get a loan of up to $3,600 a year for three years. The loan is forgiven if the attorney works for one year at a public legal service organization, Loftus said in an e-mail.

More than the loan forgiveness, though, the chance to work on something significant eclipses the risk of not being able to find work for some law school graduates.

"I took a class on the civil rights movement, and in that class we studied the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and some of the cases that came during the Vietnam War," said Bryan Milo, 28, of Friendship, who was admitted to the bar yesterday. "I decided to go to law school because I really wanted to do something like that."

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