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List: NM 19th best state to be a lawyer

The website SmartAsset recently published a list of the best states to be a lawyer. The ranking gives equal weight to six criteria, including housing costs. Three criteria are measures of the number of lawyers already working in each state, with “more” treated as “better.” I’m not sure if the logic is that lawyers congregate in desirable spots or that an increase in lawyers means an increase in legal business.

Am I the only New Mexican who feels mild surprise every time we’re not near the bottom of state rankings? By SmartAsset’s criteria, New Mexico looks pretty good. We tied for 19th place among best states to practice law, overall.

One of SmartAsset’s metrics, however, is lawyer compensation, and here we’re in a more familiar position, keeping company with the usual suspects like Mississippi and West Virginia. SmartAsset takes its figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates that the average full-time lawyer in New Mexico earns $105,910 annually.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s also $39,840 less than the average Arizona lawyer makes. Colorado and Texas lawyers average still more. Compared to our neighboring states, we’re the hole in the earnings doughnut.

One large and important segment of New Mexico lawyers is paid even less than the statewide average. According to the state’s Sunshine Portal, state government currently employs 586 people with the job title of “attorney.” When their combined annual earnings are divided by 586, the resulting average salary is $76,484, which works out to a little over half of what the average lawyer makes across the border in Colorado or Texas.

All of our judges, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico, make less money than the average lawyer in eight states, according to BLS figures.

Do we have a good legal system in New Mexico? It’s a serious question, and an important one. Answering it requires us first to agree on the measure of quality. For example, should we judge the system by the procedures employed inside the courtroom, or instead by their effect on the community outside? I think you’d find a pretty strident difference of opinion on that one.

But here’s an even more important question: do we want a good legal system? We can’t have one unless we recruit talented people to work it in. So we can boil the question down even more: are we prepared to expend the resources necessary to recruit talented lawyers to work in state government?

For years, the state and its subdivisions were able to hire good lawyers (meaning, in practical terms, lawyers with attractive options) by holding out two major inducements. The first was the opportunity to do meaningful work that makes a real difference to people’s lives. That sounds corny only if you don’t recognize the double-edged sword. In my time in state government I worked on many meaningful cases — and lost a lot of them.

The second inducement was more straightforward: backloaded compensation. I took a big cut in take-home pay when I went to work for the state because the state offered the opportunity to retire after 25 years with a pension that amounted to 75% of my salary. In effect, I accepted less money now for more time in the future.

But using the terms “salary” and “pension” risks giving a distorted picture of the financial reality. As far as I’m concerned, the pension I’m drawing today is still my salary. The state is paying me what I earned during my years of service, stretched out.

The package of inducements that drew me to public service is no longer on offer. Since 2013, new hires have been required to work significantly longer than I did before retiring. Sold as “pension reform,” that increase in service time was a massive cut in compensation. The current offer is “less money now, less time later.”

Were any young lawyer to consult me, I’d advise against following in my career footsteps. If they feel a strong call to public service, they should join the brain drain out of New Mexico. Other states will treat them better. That’s harsh, but those are the conditions we’ve created for ourselves.

Now we’re hearing noises about a further round of “pension reform.” All the talk of actuarial soundness may sound arcane, but the core issues could hardly be simpler. Everyone whose business, job or life involves any contact with any aspect of the legal system has a stake in the issue, because the Legislature is deciding the caliber of the people who will be working in our legal system ten, fifteen and twenty years from now.

Joel Jacobsen is an author who recently retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at legal.column.tips@gmail.com.

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