By Janay Haas ’83
Kito’s Kave is your typical dive: a couple of green-felted pool tables, the solitary guys in baseball caps slouching across from the bartender. But it’s also the “go-to” bar in town when there’s live music and dancing. On a recent Saturday, it was packed for a local favorite rock music duo known as Del Gatto.
When they’re not bringing down the house, musicians Sarah Fine ’18 and Thomas Walsh ’17 have day jobs. They are partners at Fine & Walsh, the only private law office in Petersburg, Alaska, population 3,200. The couple are among about 150 Lewis & Clark Law School alumni living in “the last frontier.”
Fine and Walsh met in their final years of law school, as he was contemplating a career in maritime law and she was looking into the health law field. They almost immediately discovered a shared interest in making music. They moved to Seattle to work for firms where they could specialize. Then, when the COVID pandemic forced them to work literally side by side from home, they started to consider opening their own practice. “The decision to move to Alaska had more to do with our dissatisfaction with life in Seattle,” Walsh comments. For both, a healthy work-life balance was an important goal.
Such a balance might be easier to achieve in Alaska, according to Walsh, who says, “The market for legal services here is small.” Still, the couple turns away some potential cases. Their general practice includes business advice, landlord-tenant and real estate law, maritime issues, and estate planning. They offer low-cost initial consultations and, although they do some advertising, they rely mostly on word-of-mouth referrals, says Fine.
“We practice a ‘low conflict’ style of law,” Fine points out, in keeping with their small-town setting. “We spend a lot of time talking people out of litigation and drafting conflict-resolution letters. We’re aware that we live here too, and want to help the town as a whole in the way we practice law.”
Aside from the relative ease of balancing work and pleasure, Walsh reports that Alaska “is a place of extremes.” Midnight sun dominates in summer and the noon moon in winter. In some spots, there’s the take-your-breath-away cold. There’s physical isolation in a vast territory that for many, including former Oregonian Fine, is irresistibly beautiful.
Oregon to Alaska
Oregon is a good springboard to Alaska, several lawyers say. The coastal weather of the Pacific Northwest continues up the peninsula through Ketchikan to Juneau. Western Oregon boasts similar forest landscapes, and Eastern Oregon offers a long-distance horizon and solitude that evoke many of the same feelings.
In contrast, though, Oregon would fit into Alaska almost seven times, and its “remote” locations are accessible by car. In Alaska, under 20 percent of roads are even paved. Tiny towns in the boonies are more likely to have airports with commercial-size runways, and the biggest highway is actually one of water, with regular ferry service along about half of the 6,640-mile coastline.
Despite its low population (on average, there’s just over one person per square mile), Alaska has a shortage of lawyers.
The American Bar Association reports that the state has about 2,300 resident practicing attorneys. Nearly 800 of those are based in Anchorage, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lack of practitioners in rural communities means that firms like Fine & Walsh are constantly dodging case conflicts. And in locations like his, a Ketchikan lawyer said, the aging of lawyers presents further problems.
A Need for Attorneys
Scott Brandt-Erichsen ’88 practices primarily municipal law in Ketchikan via contracts with small cities and boroughs. (The model is similar to that of Portland Metro, which governs some functions for surrounding cities.) He’s been in Ketchikan 27 years now—first as a government attorney, then going private. “Counting judges,” he says, “we have about 30 lawyers locally. Fourteen are in private practice—four are in their 70s, three are in their 60s, two are in their 40s, and I’m in my 50s.” He wonders who will step up when more than half of the current bar retires.
“The need for family law practitioners is especially great, Brandt-Erichsen adds.
Ketchikan, on one of Alaska’s 1,800 named islands, is isolated, Brandt-Erichsen says, but the town of about 14,000 has a strong sense of community. “There’s a wide range of services and activities—there’s a hospital, an airport with jet service (90 minutes to SeaTac), a vibrant community theatre, and a dance school. It’s a good place to raise kids.” And Ketchikan, the southernmost city in the state, lacks the weather extremes seen farther north, he says. Like many other Alaskans, he praises the many outdoor activities the state offers: his family skis, runs, hikes, kayaks, and boats.
Legal aid lawyer Michael Cagle ’17 is a lot farther away from SeaTac, in Kotzebue, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle and midway between Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Nome, both about 300 miles away. He arrived as a newly minted lawyer in this town of about 3,300 in October three years ago. Snow was already on the ground. There are no private-practice attorneys for scores of miles around. The service area for Alaska Legal Services Corporation’s (ALSC) Kotzebue office includes a dozen Native villages of 200–600 people.
“It’s challenging for clients who live in two cultural traditions. Tribal communities haven’t been reliant historically on writing. When someone dies without a will, for example, state law and tradition can collide.”
For the legal aid office, which undertakes community outreach, there can be cultural surprises, too. Cagle remembers taking a flight to a remote village to conduct a presentation, then learning no one would attend because a whale had just been brought in and the entire village was working on butchering the carcass.
How does a new solo lawyer survive? Cagle says he doesn’t feel entirely alone, because he gets good support from the office in Anchorage and from other ALSC lawyers around the state—but he has certainly yearned now and then to meet face to face with colleagues. “To thrive here,” he advises, “a person should be a self-starter.” And he suggests having a health insurance policy that covers air evacuation to Anchorage, because local medical care is limited.
A private firm that charged on a sliding scale would be a good addition to his community, Cagle says. “If ALSC has a conflict, there’s nowhere for a person who needs legal help to go.”
Another Lewis & Clark grad who was lured to Alaska is Mary (Molly) Mulvaney ’93, who has a civil practice and mediates family law cases in Cordova, a town of about 2,300 on Prince William Sound, between Juneau and Anchorage. Originally from Canandaigua in upstate New York, Mulvaney was no stranger to fierce winter weather.
Mulvaney was introduced to Alaska when she was 17 and took a summer job on a commercial fishing boat. For the following 10 years, she says, “I fished out of Kodiak for black cod, halibut, and salmon. My fishing years included my summers of law school.”
Post-law school, Mulvaney worked at Portland’s first mediation firm—but missed Alaska. Soon she was in Cordova, where she met her future husband, a commercial fisherman who lived part-time in Port Townsend, Washington. Mulvaney moved her practice there—and kept missing Alaska. In 2005, she put out her shingle in Cordova.
Like Cagle, Mulvaney laments the lack of formal mentors for new lawyers, but says, “I have cold-called experienced attorneys over the years and had good luck getting answers to my questions.” She belongs to several state bar sections, which have had regular meetings by telephone for years. “They have been informative, helpful, and interesting,” she says.
Brandt-Erichsen concurs that collegiality is a big plus for Alaskan lawyers, who he says recognize each other as members of the same community.
A Strong Sense of Community
Community is a pervasive theme here. In the Native villages, in particular, family and community are often coextensive. Curtis Martin ’03, a solo plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer in Palmer (north of Anchorage), says this quality is very good for business. Jury pools are made up of friends and neighbors and relatives, he says, and they can pick out the out-of-town defense attorney in the fancy suit right away. Cases tend to result in high-dollar pre-trial settlements for his clients.
Even for big firms in Anchorage, the state’s largest city by far, practice is different from that in the lower 48. Scott Broadwell ’06, with Davis Wright Tremaine, was a geologist by training before he went to law school, and his interest lay in environmental law. Alaska was a less competitive market for new lawyers with his background, he says. He is able to spend only about half his time on environmental matters, though, because the smaller market can’t fully support niche practices.
Broadwell is adamant that there are jobs for lawyers in the state, as is Fine. She recommends looking at the state bar website for opportunities. And Mulvaney points out that, because the state has a lot of Indigenous people, with some village populations over 90 percent Native Alaskan, “people who are interested in Alaska Native law might want to consider practicing here.”
As for off-work activities, Broadwell recites a local joke: “Anchorage is about as close as you can get to Alaska.” In his case, that’s about 200 feet, to a massive state park behind his home. There are lots of outdoor opportunities, including lighted ski trails in town, he reports.
“The wilderness really is right out our door. I sometimes forget how different it is here, to be on the edge of not just nature but wilderness.”