A Dime a Dozen?

A Dime a Dozen?

Urban legend says Traverse City has too many lawyers; statistics say otherwise.

By Lynn Geiger

REGION – Lawyers weather their fair share of stereotypes about the profession and less-than-positive perceptions by the public. Maybe you've heard someone say lawyers are "a dime a dozen" around here. But do the numbers actually support that claim?

"When I came to Traverse City in 1985, it was pointed out to me that I was the 186th lawyer in town," said Allen Anderson of Smith & Johnson Attorneys. "That comment was followed by 'How are we going to support so many lawyers?' "

After 28 years in practice, Anderson now has an answer.

"If you are good, people will seek you out," he said.

The common perception that locals have follows a common refrain, said James Saffell, a Traverse City-based attorney.

"It usually goes something like this: 'There sure seems to be a lot of lawyers around here. You see their ads everywhere, they are constantly in the news and every other person you meet seems to be a lawyer,'" he said.

But that perception doesn't jibe with reality. Saffell, who is currently serving a one-year term as president of the Grand Traverse-Leelanau-Antrim Bar Association, says the practice of law is no more robust here than in other cities of similar demographics and desirability.

"I am seeing more lawyers moving here for quality of life," he said, "and in some cases maintaining practices elsewhere thanks to the world of electronic filing."

According to the State Bar of Michigan, there are a total of 611 attorneys in good standing in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Antrim counties, and some 42,000 total members across Michigan's 83 counties. (By law, members include all persons who are licensed to practice law in Michigan. Not all live in the state.)

In Grand Traverse County there are 458 members, which is in line with the statistical average based on population.

"I think [the profession] has grown proportionate to the number of people who have come here," said Pat Heintz, who moved here in 1980 with his young family from a position with the Court of Appeals in Lansing. "Especially when we get the influx in the summer."

He says he always responds positively when young lawyers ready to embark on their legal careers ask about setting up shop in Traverse City.

"There is always room for good, hardworking lawyers here," said Heintz. "I always encourage them if they are so inclined to pursue it."

At a recent meeting of the local bar association, Heintz said he noticed "a lot of great young faces" and a vibrant atmosphere.

One thing that Heintz thinks is important to remember is the amount of donated legal time – such as the Free Legal Aid Clinic at Third Level – that many local lawyers participate in, as well as pro bono work.

"Lawyers do serve a significant need in the community," he said.

Bob Guyot's legal career has spanned 38 years in Traverse City. When he first started practicing in 1975, there were fewer than 20 lawyers in town, Guyot says.

"Are there a lot of attorneys here?" he said. "Yes. It's a beautiful place to live."

It's also important to note, Guyot says, that some may be semi-retired or only working part-time, and even more may be telecommuting – living here but filing electronically in courts all around the country.

He said one attorney he knows moved to Traverse City from out West, but his primary work is still thousands of miles from here.

"We do have a young, new group of lawyers here," Guyot said. "It's not just us old-timers. That says something for the community."

Anderson of Smith & Johnson says while the number of local attorneys may seem like a lot to the general population, the number doesn't bother him.

"It's a matter of what you do," he said, adding that his law practice with specializations in oil and gas, labor and employment law and Michigan Liquor Control Commission work keeps him plenty busy. It's also work that often takes him well outside the confines of Traverse City.

So what are the biggest areas of practice here?

Domestic relations (divorce and personal protection orders) and civil litigation are the biggest areas for the local courts. Personal injury cases, criminal cases, business law and real estate/easement/environmental also keep local legal professionals busy.

"There are a lot of decent lawyers here doing a lot of hard work," said Lee Hornberger, an attorney who moved to Traverse City in 2002 and whose practice focuses on mediation and arbitration work. "There's a lot of work out there."