College Street from Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont (Photo: Erika Mitchell / iStockphoto.com.)
The legal sector in small-market Vermont, with its handful of large firms and legions of small ones, tends to miss the pronounced booms and busts that economic cycles can inflict on other states.
But New England’s growing investment in alternative power has increased demand for Vermont attorneys who practice energy and environmental law. The state is home to several new wind farms and solar-power projects, and others are proposed.
Many of the practice areas at one of the state’s largest firms, Burlington-based Downs Rachlin Martin, “are in steady state,” said Paul Ode Jr., managing partner and chief executive officer.
But a few practice areas are more than merely “steady,” Ode said. The 61-attorney firm is seeing more demand for legal work in the energy field, as well as telecommunications and intellectual property, he said.
The Vermont Law School in South Royalton is sending more graduates to the energy practices at the state’s large firms, said Abby Armstrong, the school’s director of career services.
Nonprofits active in energy law and policy, as well as state regulators, have also been hiring graduates for energy and environmental work, she said.
Small firms and solo practitioners dominate the state’s legal ­landscape, which features about five firms with more than 10 attorneys, said Bob Paolini, executive director of the Ver­mont Bar Association.
As in many other states, the aging of the bar is a concern in Vermont. More members of the state bar association are in their 50s and 60s than in their 20s and 30s, Paolini said, raising the possibility that a wave of retirements will greatly reduce the number of attorneys in Vermont.
Vermont’s unemployment rate in May was 3.3 percent, the nation’s second lowest and well below the national rate of 6.1 percent.
But the state’s climb out of the recession has been slow. Its employed workforce has grown by less than 1 percent a year, federal data show.
“Vermont’s economy does not tend to spike up, nor does it tend to spike down,” Ode said.
“It tends to be pretty steady.” The predictability is nice — to a point. “We would like to see more growth,” he said.
Number of NLJ 350 lawyers: 2
Number of NLJ 350 firms: 1
Largest NLJ 350 law office: Fenwick & West (2)
Number of ABA-accredited law schools: 1
Sources: 2014 NLJ 350; American Bar Association; U.S. Census Bureau