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Employment in the legal field growing

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Former Beckley resident Aaron Ryan knew since middle school that he wanted to be a lawyer.

Now, the Tulane University Law School student is studying to make his dream a reality, hoping to eventually end back up in his home state.

"I've always been interested in the law and how it is written and applied," Ryan said. "Lawyers have a bad reputation, but one thing I learned early on in law school is all of the good that lawyers can do."

Meanwhile, William Swann, decided after working five years for Travelers Insurance Company to go back to school so he could more directly help the insured.

"In my role working for the company, I had little direct contact with insureds," Swann wrote. "As an attorney, I knew I could help by acting as an adviser and counselor, I could lead good people through the often costly headache of litigation."

"I hope to achieve this goal when I start work this summer with Kay Casto & Chaney in Charleston," Swann continued. "I'm very fortunate to have a job with a good firm."

Even though their stories and backgrounds are different, these two people have one thing in common — they are going into a field that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is growing every day.

According to data released in April 2012, the median annual wage for attorneys in May 2010 was $112,760.

And in a tough job market, this field is expected to grow by 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, or "about as fast as the average for all occupations."

James Jolly, communications director for the WVU College of Law said the employment outlook for lawyers in West Virginia and the immediate region is better than the national average.

"Smaller to mid-size firms and the energy industry are hiring," he said. "We're finding average starting salaries around $63,000."

However, competition could be rough, bureau data further stated.

"Competition for jobs should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available."

The BLS additionally states that demand for lawyers "will be constrained as business increasingly use large accounting firms and paralegals to do some of the same tasks that lawyers do."

 "For example, accounting firms may provide employee benefit counseling, process documents, or handle various other services that law firms previously handled," the BLS states.

Ashley Pack, a Charleston Dinsmore & Shohl attorney who also works on the recruiting committee, said the legal market is undergoing significant changes.

"With the recession, big law firms have either cut associates or delaying start dates and they are really having a really massive overhaul in the legal profession," she said. "But it's getting better.  … Everything is market driven."

Pack said that the job market for attorneys isn't overly negative.

"I hate the negative thing of ‘it stinks to be a lawyer right now.' If you want to do it, you should do it," she said. "You may not be getting out and having that big law firm job. You may have to get experience in different things." 

Pack said there is more pressure on law schools to make curriculum more practice-based so lawyers can get out of school prepared and trained for their fields.

"They are turning out better people from law schools to make students more competitive for jobs," she said. "Right now, is it a tough time to be in law school? Yes, with the kind of debt students have and to be competitive for law firm jobs or any job for that matter."

There are certain fields that are seeing an increase. Pack said the hot fields are energy, health care and patent litigation. Pack explained that hot fields are market-driven, with legislation and regulation driving issues in these fields.

"I actually think it is better to be open to all possibilities," Pack said of students going into law school. "Get a good base, learn how to think analytically and get out and see where your interests lie. In law school, I said I wanted to be a corporate attorney. Now that I understand my skills set better, I know that that definitely is not where my skill set is. I should be in litigation."

Ryan, meanwhile, said although he hasn't yet decided which practice area best suits him, he is leaning toward criminal law.

"Criminal lawyers really help to protect the fundamental rights to due process and a fair trial," he said. "It's important to make sure that these rights are protected and aren't taken for granted."

Ryan said his tenure at Tulane is preparing him to practice anywhere in the country.

"I ultimately hope to come back to West Virginia but I know that if I don't, I'm prepared to practice no matter where I decide to go."