Inland Empire struggles to retain young lawyers

By Katie Lucia Daily
Journal Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE – Many law students go through the rigors of law school – shouldering grueling studies and backbreaking student loans – all in pursuit of the good life. For many, that life is idealized in coastal cities and large cosmopolitan areas. But as the legal job market plummeted in recent years, graduates have had to take jobs in less desirable areas, attorneys say, using firms, such as those in the Inland Empire, as stepping stones to bigger and better things.

With the job market improving slowly, Inland Empire firm leaders say they’re facing an growing exodus of talented lawyers who work only a few years in the area before moving on. It’s a scenario that has played out in other regions in California over the past couple of decades, including Silicon Valley.

The situation is especially troubling for the Inland Empire legal community, where the two counties making up the region, Riverside and San Bernardino, experienced massive population growth between 2000 and 2010 but saw almost no increase in attorneys, according to data by the U.S. Census Bureau. Riverside County, boasting nearly 2 million residents, saw a 41 percent population jump that decade but gained only 1 percent more lawyers in the region.

“Over the last decade, we’ve probably lost 50 percent of our young, single associates to, shall we say, the proverbial greener pastures back in Orange County and L.A.,” said Michael J. Marlatt, managing partner of Thompson & Colgate LLP, one of the larger firms in the region.

It’s a big issue, Marlatt said, because hiring and training a new attorney is a significant investment. “We spend all this time training the people, giving them the experience, then when they get to the point where they start getting clients and can handle more sophisticated matters, they leave,” Marlatt said. “That obviously leaves a void in experience level.

” The problem affects both private and public sectors, according to Jeffrey A. Van Wagenen Jr., assistant district attorney in Riverside County. “What we’ve found is we’ve seen a handful of attorneys leaving our Eastern Division” in Indio, he said. “Usually they’re leaving to go to another DAs office.” He points to the harsh desert climate – with temperatures often in the triple digits – as main cause for attorneys to jump ship. “From a point of view of climate and air quality and proximity to the beach, that part of Southern California is just not seen as desirable as other areas,” said Sandy Lechtick, a Los Angeles legal recruiter. “That impacts where people want to raise families and especially those that really want to be where the action is.” Some young lawyers in the area believe a lack of nightlife is a big reason for moving on, according to Kelly A. Moran, an associate at Thompson & Colgate and president of the Riverside County Barristers, the local bar association’s group for young and new lawyers in the region. “There really aren’t a lot of places to go and meet people out here, so it definitely puts a damper on your dating prospects,” she said. Especially if they’re younger and single, the lawyers tend to spend their nights and weekends in the larger metropolitan areas. A Riverside native, Moran said she has no intention of leaving. But on the weekends, like many of her colleagues, she often finds herself in Orange County or Los Angeles. “Many who leave tell us how much they like the firm,” Marlatt said, “but how they feel so out of the area socially.” Firm leaders have been discussing the issue with local politicians to lobby for more amenities, Marlatt said. “Once they establish the ties they’re more likely to stay,” he said.

Best Best & Krieger LLP partner Cynthia M. Germano said she wouldn’t characterize it as a big issue, but the firm has lost strong young attorneys to bigger areas. “We do have some people who decide they need to find a husband or a wife and they move to the big city,” she said.

Many Inland Empire firms have tailored their interview process to ferret out candidates intending to use the job as a stepping-stone. Interviewers ask questions that determine their ties to the area or how much they know about the region. While married associates generally tend to stay in the area, Marlatt said, employers are not allowed to ask questions about marital status. Partners at Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden PC opened an office in San Diego last year “in part because young attorneys wanted to work and live closer to cosmopolitan areas,” said Richard D. Marca, a senior shareholder in Riverside. “Some of the top law students, they want something different beyond an Inland Empire living,” Marca said. “For us to continue to provide the high level of talent that we do and to attract top attorneys, we needed to open up an office closer to where they wanted to be.” Local firms also provide the opportunity for quicker job advancement, lawyers said. “We do our best to make sure that we offer them challenging work assignments that they might not get in the big firms,” Germano said.

Another way to bolster commitment to the area, Marlatt said, could be to promote the presence of strong law schools in the region. The Inland Empire is home to smaller law schools, the most prominent being the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario, which has provisional ABA accreditation. “The thought is if people go to school here and they get clerkships, [they’re]more inclined to stay,” Marlatt said. UC Riverside opened a medical school in recent years to combat a parallel issue of keeping good doctors in the area. “It’s certainly something that affects all professions out here,” Marlatt said.

katie_lucia@dailyjournal.com

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