As the smallest state in the union but with the longest official name — State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — the Ocean State is attempting to build a future in biotechnology, health care and high-technology start-ups so it can finally shake off its heavy manufacturing past and the lingering effects of the Great Recession. It's been a slow recovery, and the legal community has responded by keeping expenses and staff lean.
"The Rhode Island economy was chasing Michigan for the bottom of the barrel for a number of years," said Providence partner Christopher D. Graham of Edwards Wildman Palmer. "It makes it a challenge for law firms to grow and expand."
During the worst of the downturn in 2009 and 2010, the state unemployment rate hovered near 12 percent. It's just under 9 percent today, and Graham noted that the slow national recovery and statewide tax, pension and infrastructure worries have made it tougher for Rhode Island to adapt.
Before the work fled to Asia, Rhode Island was one of the world's major costume jewelry manufacturers. These days, the state's top industries are health care, tourism and manufacturing.
Rhode Island is home to headquarters of Citizens Financial Group Inc., the 14th largest bank in the country, and Fortune 500 members CVS Caremark Corp. and Textron Inc. are based in Woonsocket and Providence, respectively.
Attorney numbers have held steady, even gone up a little, according to the Rhode Island Bar Association. As of July, active membership stood at 4,963 (the association has roughly 6,000 members overall), compared with active membership of 4,450 in 2010.
"As you can see, the membership didn't reflect any significant fluctuation," bar spokesman Frederick Massie said. "However, as was the case throughout the country, the number of open positions dropped, so opportunities for finding legal employment were and are reduced from the pre-2007 level. That said, we don't have any demographic data to illustrate that — only a lot of glum faces and high law school loans."
The American Bar Association counts 4,173 attorneys in Rhode Island, but that figure is limited to active, licensed attorneys who reside in the state.
To spur business, state officials have wrestled with pension reform and brought down the state's relatively high regional personal income tax rate, but quite a bit more will need to be done, Graham said. "The estate tax is still a killer here — the exemption is a shade under $1 million," he said.