If the country indeed has too many lawyers, as the knock on the profession suggests, Indiana may be exempt from the conversation.
Only North and South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin have smaller proportions of lawyers within their working populations, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show. In Indiana, 0.24 percent of the work force of 2.9 million are attorneysone-third the concentration of New York's. What does that say about Indiana? And more important, does it even matter that Indiana has so few lawyers? Prominent legal professionals attribute Indiana's depressed ranking to a shrinking base of corporate headquarters and an exodus of law school graduates. A less-litigious climate and relatively low wages are thought to be factors, too.
As a result, Indiana may be missing out on many of the brightest young legal minds the state's four law schools have to offer. And with fewer lawyers, the state's push to provide free legal advice to the most needy may be falling short, they argue.
"If you don't have a significant segment of your population with legal training, I think your state suffers," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis. The government counts 7,110 lawyers in Indiana. Overall, though, roughly 17,100 attorneys are licensed to practice in the state, according to the Indiana Supreme Court. The total includes about 2,000 lawyers who are not Hoosiers.
The figures only count lawyers at law firms who are eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Omitted are equity partners, who are considered company owners, as well as sole practitioners, corporate counsel and government lawyers.
New York tops the list with 0.78 percent of its work force employed as lawyers. Delaware, known for its corporate-friendly laws, Illinois and New Jersey rank high, too.
The government also tracks the District of Columbia, where lawyers, many of whom are lobbyists, compose a whopping 4.6 percent of employment.
Many in the profession say they are not surprised by the dearth in Indiana, particularly because corporate consolidations have left the state with fewer large headquarters.
"This has become a branch town," said Mike McConnell, a former law firm administrator who chairs the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board, an agency that attempts to improve relations between public school corporations and their teachers. "[Companies will] hire local counsel if there is a local legal issue, but that doesn't demand the firepower you would need at headquarters."
Indiana's low concentration of lawyers also is explained by an exodus of law school graduates.
Indiana University's law school in Indianapolis produces half the state's lawyers, said Roberts, the dean. Many students at the other three schoolsIU in Bloomington, the University of Notre Dame and Valparaiso Universityarrive from out of state and leave upon graduating.
A third factor is Hoosier reluctance to settle disputes in the courts, said the state's top-ranking judge, Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.
"It reflects a little higher level of civility," Shepard said. "And a high level of accommodation and fair dealing that goes on."
Close to 2 million new court cases are expected to be filed in Indiana this year. That's a relatively low number when compared with the state's population, Shepard said.
Wages are another influence, said Jim Voyles, a prominent Indianapolis criminal defense attorney and president of the Indianapolis Bar Association.
Indeed, the annual mean wage for Indiana attorneys is $92,600, 10th lowest in the nation, according to the government. By comparison, the annual mean wage in New York is $145,400. In neighboring Illinois, it's $136,780.
Despite their relative scarcity, lawyers find Indiana a competitive place to practice.
A few of Indianapolis' larger firms were acquired last year by Midwestern rivals looking to expand. And a handful of national firms focused on employment law have opened Indianapolis offices the past 10 years.
Competition for work is even fiercer in today's brutal economic climate, which has forced locally based Baker & Daniels LLP and scores of firms nationwide to cut staff.
"I don't sense that there's a lack of competition for the work that Baker & Daniels does," said Managing Partner Tom Froehle.
Most firms, including Baker & Daniels, encourage their lawyers to donate time to pro bono activities. But the dearth of lawyers could be hurting the cause of serving the less fortunate, Froehle argued.
Shepard concurred. He has made it his mission to encourage lawyers to provide a small amount of legal advice at no charge. Additional lawyers might equate to more donated hours, he said.
"There are plenty of citizens who need legal help who have a hard time getting it," Shepard said.
Local legal consultant Bob Birge said law firms can help attract out-of-state grads by offering good summer associate programs. But now that many big firms are cutting back or eliminating the programs due to economic hardships, he fears the numbers may not improve anytime soon.
If there's any consolation, Voyles said, it's that Indiana's law schools are held in such high esteem that they draw scores of students from outside the state's borders.
The temptation to make more money in a larger market couldn't sway Voyles, who's spent 40 years defending the accused.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Voyles earned a bachelor's degree from Illinois College near Springfield but returned to IU Indianapolis to attend law school. After graduating in 1968, he never contemplated practicing anywhere else.
"I think it's fabulous," Voyles said. "I love it here."