February 14, 2014

Building the Legal Pipeline…LC law alums in Alaska

An increasing number of law school students and alumni are looking to Alaska for career opportunities in a tight legal market.

An increasing number of law school students and alumni are looking to Alaska for career opportunities in a tight legal market.

By Genevieve Long (from Lewis & Clark’s Chronicle magazine; Winter 2014)

Alaska is a land of abundance, boasting more than 650,000 square miles of land, 17 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the United States, more than 3 million lakes, a bustling fishing industry, and significant oil reserves. However, in terms of legal education, it is surprisingly lacking: Alaska doesn’t have a single law school.

For Lewis & Clark, this signals an opportunity—both to attract Alaskan residents who would like to study in Portland and to place current students and alumni in desirable legal positions in the 49th state. “About 60 percent of our students want to practice in Oregon,” says Libby Davis JD ’93, associate dean of career services and alumni relations. “But our job market has been relatively slow to recover after the Great Recession, so we’re encouraging students to look outside the state, too.”

As it turns out, Lewis & Clark students and alumni are particularly well suited to practice in Alaska. “We have strong programs in relevant areas, such as natural resource law,” says Davis. “It’s a great place for interns, externs, and graduates because of the state’s needs in our areas of emphasis.”

Unlike many states with depressed legal markets, Alaska offers high-quality jobs in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Davis and Dean of the Law School Robert Klonoff have increased their travel to the state over the last three years, meeting frequently with attorneys (many of whom are alumni) and judges (including the entire Alaska Supreme Court) to talk about the quality of Lewis & Clark law students and alumni. In 2010, Klonoff was invited to Alaska as the keynote speaker for the Alaska Bar Convention. On that trip, he also took time to address the pre-law society of the University of Alaska at Anchorage. The result of such efforts has been an expansion in new externships, internships, and judicial clerkships as well as increased buzz about the law school in Alaska’s legal community. It’s a win-win for both Alaska and Lewis & Clark.

Tight-Knit Community, Work-Life Balance

Alaska’s legal community is small by most standards, with a bar association of just 4,000 members. (By comparison, the Oregon bar has more than 14,000 and New York State 77,000.) But the state’s small size has its advantages, says Brook Brisson JD ’08, an attorney with the public interest environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska. “You see fellow attorneys all the time, whether you’re litigating or just getting coffee. It builds a supportive, collegial atmosphere.”

Alaska’s court system and most law firms are based in Anchorage, the state’s largest city. With fewer than 300,000 residents, it is home to approximately 41 percent of the Alaskan population. But because Alaska is so large, with many roadless areas, it’s not always easy to reach some clients. When necessary, attorneys travel by bush plane. Quinlan Steiner JD ’98 is a fourth-generation Alaskan who has directed Alaska’s Public Defender Agency since 2005. “You can work in very small communities that are off the road system and get to know the families involved in a way that’s not possible in larger communities,” he says. “Practicing law in Alaska is a different lifestyle, and it’s very interesting.”

That unique lifestyle extends outside the courtroom as well. New attorneys’ schedules can be less hectic than in the lower 48 states, and Brisson sees more support for work-life balance at all practice levels. When she did a judicial clerkship with the Alaska Court of Appeals, judges and attorneys encouraged her to get out and experience the state’s natural beauty after hours. “Alaska is a fantastic place for people who like to be outdoors,” Davis says. Charles Malmsten JD ’13, who worked for the municipality of Anchorage in summer 2013, agrees. After a weekend fishing trip, he sent his parents a gift of fresh halibut for Father’s Day. Some employers lend out recreation equipment and organize hikes; for students in fall or year-round positions, winter activities are a draw.

A Land of (Legal) Opportunity

Besides collegiality, stunning scenery, and adventure, Alaska offers professional opportunities that are virtually unmatched elsewhere. “Because it’s a relatively new state, Alaska doesn’t have a widely developed body of law,” Klonoff says. “Alaska offers Lewis & Clark students and alumni a great deal of experience. Even students in judicial clerkships wind up helping make case law because there’s not as much precedent as in other states. Law students can try cases and make appellate arguments under the supervision of practicing attorneys.”

It worked that way for Steiner, leading to his dream job as Alaska’s public defender. “I chose Lewis & Clark partly because it offered semester-long externships,” he says. In Steiner’s third year of law school, he spent the summer and fall working in the Alaska public defender’s office. “For most of those six months, I was in court,” he says. “As a law student, I argued a case before the Alaska Court of Appeals.” His practical experience put him far ahead of other job candidates. “By the time I finished law school, I’d already drafted appellate briefs, appeared in court, and argued cases and motions. When it came time to get a job, I had already shown I could handle the work.” In 2013, Steiner was appointed to his third four-year term as Alaska’s public defender.

The Alaska public defender’s office, like many other state government offices, has a robust internship program. “We hire summer interns and encourage them to get judicial clerkships, then come back and apply with us,” Steiner says. “Lewis & Clark allows students to focus more on gaining practical experience than some other law schools, and that benefits them when they come here.”

Malmsten’s work with the municipality of Anchorage is a good example. The municipality frequently welcomes Lewis & Clark students, and Malmsten’s coworkers treated him like a full-fledged practicing attorney, not just summer help. “Working in the civil division involves general research, second opinions, and coming up with fresh ideas,” he says. “I was trusted with serious information.”

Lewis & Clark’s engagement with Alaska alumni also ensures high-quality, one-to-one networking opportunities. “I hadn’t been in my externship a month before alumni were handing me business cards, saying, ‘Drop me a line if you’re interested in coming back after law school,’” Malmsten says.

Working for Land and People

“Alaska is a great location for students and graduates with a strong interest in environmental issues and those who want to work with Alaska Native or other indigenous groups,” says Davis. There is ample work with energy and natural resource companies; positions are also available with nonprofit public interest groups such as Trustees for Alaska. (Four of Trustees’ seven staff attorneys are Lewis & Clark alumni, and the firm regularly hires interns on stipends from Lewis & Clark’s Public Interest Law Project. Lewis & Clark also provides targeted support, such as funds for out-of-state interview travel, through the dean’s office; in 2012–13, the President’s Strategic Initiative Fund provided some funds.) Brisson, a native Vermonter who “always wanted to go to Alaska for the wilderness and mountains,” began her Alaska career as a clerk for Court of Appeals Judge David Mannheimer and also worked for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. “Now, I work every day to protect the places that drew me here,” she says.

Criminal law—both prosecution and defense—is another area of opportunity in Alaska. Steiner says new attorneys and students do important work from the start. “You get involved in high-level, complex issues more quickly than in a larger jurisdiction such as Los Angeles or Seattle. In your first year of practice, you could be handling criminal defense issues with statewide implications.” On the practical side, the application process for government jobs is simpler than in many other states because Alaska’s hiring is centralized in Anchorage. After candidates complete a general application, they can discuss openings for which they are eligible and potential practice locations.

Even students who don’t fall in love with the Last Frontier find it a gateway to opportunity. “Because Lewis & Clark has so many connections with Alaska firms, taking advantage of those can give you the inside track to working in another city,” says Malmsten. Alumni who started out in Alaska have landed high-profile jobs outside the state.

After working in the Anchorage office of a leading law firm for several years, one alumnus was hired by a client firm—a well-known, Texas-based energy company. “He’s now one of the senior lawyers in an international corporation because of his Alaska experience,” Klonoff says. “He was catapulted into the higher echelons of law at an early stage in his career.”

A Win for Graduates and Alaska

“Employers love Lewis & Clark students,” Klonoff says. “I’ve heard that again and again.” And they’re working in plum positions. In fall 2013, one student held a clerkship on the Alaska Supreme Court, another on the Court of Appeals, and several for trial courts. One student was accepted for a federal district court clerkship in 2014.

Davis confirms that Alaskan employers are interested in Lewis & Clark students and graduates. As the law school reaches out to other strategic locations where Lewis & Clark has a strong alumni base and employers’ needs match students’ skills, Alaska continues to shine. “We have other areas where graduates do very well—places like Washington, D.C., on the East Coast and Boise and Seattle in the Northwest,” says Davis. “But Alaska employers definitely want more applicants.”

“Creating opportunity for students and graduates is part of our job as a law school,” Klonoff says. Soon-to-be graduates appreciate the school’s engagement with the legal community, including personal assistance from such Alaska legal luminaries as former Supreme Court Chief Justice and Board of Visitors member Alex Bryner, who often helps students prepare and apply for positions. “For entry-level jobs, it’s still a tough market,” Malmsten says. “Some schools offer classes or extension programs in Alaska, but Dean Klonoff’s goal isn’t just to enroll us in more classes—it’s to get us jobs.”

As the job market improves, Lewis & Clark Law School will continue encouraging students and alumni to consider Alaska. With its Northwest connections, variety of practice areas, and opportunity for legal trailblazing—as well as that outdoor lifestyle—it might just be the perfect fit.

Genevieve Long is a freelance writer in Portland.