Maryland's record crop of new lawyers has heard the question again and again: Does Maryland have too many lawyers?
After all, the number of attorneys in the state has risen to an all-time high -- about 23,700 -- at a time when law school graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to land full-time legal jobs.
That number includes the 1,111 lawyers admitted to the Maryland bar in ceremonies last week in the chambers of the Maryland Court of Appeals. That eclipses the record of 921 admitted last year.
The number of lawyers in the state has quadrupled over the past 20 years.
About 800,000 nationwide are eligible to practice, and that number is projected to surpass 1 million by the year 2000, said Janet Stidman Eveleth, a Maryland State Bar Association spokeswoman.
Maryland's new attorneys, the state bar and a law school dean aren't ready to concede that there are too many lawyers, but they acknowledge that it's becoming more difficult for young legal professionals to land jobs or to practice in their chosen areas.
In previous years, many law students lined up jobs while still in law school. Now, fewer are hired before graduation.
Samantha B. Sandler, who graduated from the Duke University law school last spring, desperately wants to be a public defender in Maryland. She was discouraged after she applied for the job and was told that no positions were open. Her spirits lifted when she was offered an interview that's scheduled for this week. The job pays about $37,000 annually.
"There's a recession, and lawyers in the public defender's office aren't going to leave," surmised Ms. Sandler, 25, of Rockville, who said she suspects that she might have had more success had she sought a high-paying job at a large law firm.
Cheryl Y. Roberts, 30, of Baltimore, who graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in May, made out better. She's doing medical malpractice work at a Baltimore law firm.
"I guess I'm pretty fortunate," Ms. Roberts said while standing outside the Court of Appeals building with proud family members after being sworn in as a lawyer. "It's scary out there."
Her advice to people considering law school?
"I would tell them, if it's something you truly wanted all your life and it fills your void, pursue it," Ms. Roberts said. "But, if it's something you're not sure about, take a long hard look and consider other alternatives."
National figures illustrate just how difficult it has become over the years for law school graduates to find jobs.
Only 72.5 percent of lawyers had found full-time legal jobs six months after graduating from law school in May 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement.
The NALP, which compiles employment data on attorneys, says 4 percent of graduates worked part time in the legal profession six months after graduation and 7 percent worked in nonlegal jobs in its 1992 survey. Nearly 15 percent were unemployed while 1.9 percent were enrolled in other degree programs, the survey found.
Even counting part-time lawyers and graduates working outside the profession, only 83.6 percent of law students were employed six months after graduation. That was a decrease from a year earlier when 85.9 percent were working in six months. Five years earlier, 92.2 percent had jobs a half-year after graduation.
"While it is clear the number of lawyers is growing, it's happening at an unfortunate time in our economy," said Paula A. Patton, executive director of the NALP.
"Since late 1990 in particular, the legal employment market has been constrained. Grads are having a more difficult time finding employment than their predecessors," Ms. Patton said. "To be ++ real candid, there is no indication that prospects for the class of 1993 are any better."
P. Dennis Belman, the state bar's president-elect, said he believes the glut of lawyers could be matched with the needs of middle-income people who often do not have access to legal remedies. He said the profession should seek to provide more services to the middle class.
Young lawyers, Mr. Belman said, will have to strike out on their own if they want to practice.
"I think more and more of our young lawyers are going to be hanging out shingles. There are going to be more and more solo practitioners," Mr. Belman said before a state bar luncheon for the new members. "We've got to recognize that the halcyon '80s are not going to return in the legal profession."
Donald G. Gifford, dean of the UM law school, said graduates are encountering the same problems that professionals in other fields face in the still-sluggish economy.
"I think we're in a periodic cycle where we have teaching graduates who can't find jobs, business graduates who can't find jobs, social work graduates who can't find jobs and law school graduates who can't find jobs," Mr. Gifford said.
He said enrollment at the UM law school cannot be blamed for the growing numbers -- the university has limited the number of new students to 260 for the past 20 years when more people are applying. He said the profession's growth will taper when lawyers who began practicing in the 1960s and early 1970s begin to retire.
"If there is a surplus of lawyers, it's going to be a temporary surplus," Mr. Gifford said. "In 10 years, the number of lawyers retiring will be about the same as the number of law school graduates."
The increase in the number of attorneys over the years has been accompanied by a growth in litigation, which feeds the public's negative image of the profession.
Augustus F. Brown 4th, president of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, told the new lawyers at one of the 15 swearing-in ceremonies to be aware of the public's views.
"Every night, comedians cannot resist ridiculing lawyers," Mr. Brown said, imploring the group to help change society's "unflattering image" of lawyers.
Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy said lawyers have undergone "more scrutiny than any other profession" because of their increasing role in society.
He said the public is demanding more legal remedies.
"More and more, people are turning to the courts and to the legal profession as a first, and not a last, resort to the problems that plague their lives," Judge Murphy said.
Here are national statistics showing the percentage of law school graduates unemployed six months after graduation since More than 35,000 members were polled from each class. These figures do not include law graduates who were working in other professions:
1980 -- 6.6%
1981 -- 7.8
1982 -- 8.7
1983 -- 9.4
1984 -- 7.7
1985 -- 7.0
1986 -- 7.2
1987 -- 6.6
1988 -- 6.9
1989 -- 7.9
1990 -- 8.2
1991 -- 12.6
1992 -- 14.5