When former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, Jackson, started out practicing law 35 years ago, there were only six African-American lawyers in Mississippi and they were all civil rights attorneys.
“There are close to 500 African-American attorneys in Mississippi now, and they are plaintiff lawyers, defense lawyers, judges and district attorneys,” said Anderson, who was the first African American on the Mississippi Supreme Court and the first African-American president of the Mississippi Bar Association. “They are represented in all areas of the law.”
Anderson, who is currently in practice with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, attorneys, said while tremendous progress has been made, there is still a need for a lot more African-American attorneys. About 8% of attorneys in the state are African American, while the state’s population is about 36% African American.
“Not just African-American lawyers, but all lawyers are huge assets to their community,” Anderson said. “They are leaders in politics, religion and social activities. They inspire young people, and are involved in the community. Lawyers are extremely vital to our communities in so many ways. Lawyers typically give back. Lawyers volunteer. In fact, lawyers are required to donate a specific amount of time for volunteer services every year.”
Progress has also been made in attracting women to the profession. Currently 197 women are enrolled in the University of Mississippi Law School, and 281 men. There are predictions that by the end of the decade half of the students in U.S. law schools will be women.
“We are seeing a large percentage of new lawyers being female,” said Cham Trotter, president The Mississippi Bar. “Our bar in Mississippi is rapidly approaching 25% women. Where I practice law in the Mississippi Delta, every state court judge I regularly appear before is a woman. When I go into court I say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ You are seeing this large influx of women into the profession, which is good.”
All practicing attorneys in the state are required to belong to The Mississippi Bar Association, which currently has 7,000 active members. About 6,000 live in Mississippi. There are currently 1,257 active female lawyers in the state.
Mississippi hasn’t yet had a female president of The Mississippi Bar Association, but Trotter expects that to change in the near future.
“I’m firmly convinced that before the end of the decade we will have at least two women presidents of the state bar,” he said.
Most of the attorneys in Mississippi, about 70%, either practice solo or in small firms with five lawyers or less. Trotter said Mississippi hasn’t seen as many mergers of small law firms into big practices as has been the trend in larger states. That is attributed to the state’s smaller population centers. The large law firms are more common in large metropolitan areas.
Too many lawyers?
Are 7,000 lawyers in Mississippi too many? Both Trotter and Anderson said that isn’t the case.
“If there were too many lawyers, people would not be gravitating to the profession,” Anderson said. “They would go somewhere else.”
Trotter said as he has traveled around the state, he has heard no complaints about too many lawyers slicing the pie too thin.
“Everyone says, ‘I’m just as busy as I can be’,” Trotter said. “We haven’t had lawyers complaining to the bar association that, hey, I don’t have enough to do. The old story is there is always room for another good lawyer. There are some areas where there are more lawyers per capita than others. There are things out there that the public needs lawyers to do.”
About 1,000 of the state’s 6,000 lawyers are not in private practice. They serve a general counsel for businesses or governmental agencies, work as district attorneys and assistant district attorneys, and in other capacities.
In the year ahead the legal issues Trotter expects to capture a lot of attention will be the issue of multi-jurisdictional practices where attorneys are licensed to practice in more than one state, and judicial reform of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“That is going to be very visible on the radar screen as far as the legal profession is concerned,” Trotter said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.