Learning to Love Lawyers: Economic Development in the Knowledge Economy

Some people regard the proliferation of lawyers in the United States as a blight, a symptom of a society addicted to litigation. But here in Richmond, we love our lawyers.

In this town, where the economy is based largely upon professional services, the law is big business. At the end of 2007, according to Emily Dooley with the Times-Dispatch, the legal sector employed 5,838 people, about 2,000 of whom are attorneys. The industry sector’s average annual salary, which includes non-lawyers, was $77,000.

The legal profession is remarkably large for a city Richmond’s size. Several characteristics of the region account for the proliferation of practitioners. Richmond is home to the state capital, which provides lots of lobbying and regulatory work; a U.S. Court of Appeals, one of 12 in the country; and a Federal Reserve Bank. The city also has a large business clientele, including the corporate headquarters of 10 Fortune 1000 companies.

In my observation, however, the local client base is almost incidental to many Richmond attorneys, who are road warriors serving clients who rarely, if ever, set foot in the city. One friend of mine, who handles litigation for automobile manufacturers, zooms off every week to trials in courtrooms around the country. Another friend, an expert in land use law, travels nationally to work on cutting-edge real estate projects. Yet another represents a roster of Israeli firms doing business in the U.S.

More examples: After stepping down as governor, Gerald L. Baliles built a national practice as an aviation attorney. After stepping down as Secretary of Commerce and Trade, Michael Schewel has started working on alternate energy deals around the country.

In the Knowledge Economy, lawyers are more than ambulance chasers and pettifoggers — they are deal makers. The best of them do business anywhere, and they can live anywhere, they want. A remarkable number of top attorneys choose to live in Richmond.

Economic development of the Knowledge Economy is all about recruiting and retaining human capital. That’s made easier in Richmond by the number of large and growing firms: most prominently Hunton & Williams and McGuire Woods, but also fast-risers such as LeClair Ryan. Richmond has another big advantage in talent recruitment: access to excellent law schools such as the University of Virginia, William & Mary and the University of Richmond, all located within the region or a few miles down the Interstate. All three law schools recruit nationally, and a disproportionate number of their graduates are recruited by local law firms.

So, what can the Richmond region do to build its legal sector? Top lawyers travel a lot, so the most important piece of physical infrastructure is Richmond International Airport. Only a few years ago, Richmond had arguably the worst air service of any city its size. We now have a handsome new facility and much more competitive air fares and flight schedules. Otherwise, “economic development” consists of building the kind of communities that lawyers like to live in. In that regard, last weekend’s French Film Festival at Virginia Commonwealth University, an internationally known cultural event, may do more to make Richmond desirable to legal professionals than anything that traditional economic developers can do.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    How many lawers does it take to create an environment for law based economic development?

    Two: one to sue, one to defend.

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