The headline on a recent article — “Family sues teacher in recorded attack on student” — caught my attention and got me wondering just how many lawyers are there in the United States.

Harris Sherline

Harris Sherline

According to the American Bar Association, there were 1,128,729 resident and active attorneys in the United States in 2006 and 1,143,358 in 2007. A small percentage of the increase (actual number 352) was related to American Somoa and Guam being added to the survey in 2007.

There is one lawyer for every 265 Americans. Brazil is a close second with 571,360 lawyers but a higher per capita ratio of one for every 326 Brazilians.

Looking at the statistics for other nations, the per capita numbers indicate that Spain and Italy do not “by far” have the most lawyers, although their respective per capita numbers are very high. Following are the total number and per capita head count for other countries:

» New Zealand — 10,523 lawyers, or a ratio of one lawyer for every 391 citizens

» Spain — 114,143 lawyers, one per 395 residents

» Italy — 121,380 lawyers, one per 488 residents

» United Kingdom — 151,043 lawyers, one per 401 residents

» Germany — 138,679 lawyers, one per 593 residents

» France — 45,686 lawyers, one per 1,403 residents

Among the top seven “lawyerly countries” listed above, the United States has about 50 percent of the total, with 37 percent of the population of this group. About 300 members of Congress are lawyers (no surprise there).

India, however, has about 1 million lawyers, roughly the same absolute number as the United States, although its per capita number is only a quarter or fifth of that of America. That means the United States has a much smaller portion of the overall total than 70 percent, or even 50 percent (the lawyer number for the United States was taken from the active American Bar Association list for 2007).

On the other end of the spectrum, Japan has 5,800 people per lawyer. Putting it another way, Japan, with a population of about 147 million, has only 22,000 licensed attorneys. However, according to BusinessWeek, the gap is about to narrow. Faced with the effects of globalization — international patent disputes, cross-border mergers and activist overseas shareholders — Japan has launched a program to increase the number of lawyers in its citizen population.

With 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons, there is about one lawyer for every inmate.

Of the total U.S. work force of more than 157 million people in 2010, only 7 percent are lawyers. Yet 46 percent of the members of Congress are attorneys, 63 percent of the Senate and 42 percent of the House of Representatives (total 247).

The federal government employs more than 40,000 attorneys, with about 11,000 of them working in the Justice Department. State and local governments employ many times this number and, given the scope of the administrative activities in government, nearly every lawyer in the United States has dealings with government lawyers.

Just about everyone dislikes lawyers — that is, in the professional sense. But in the United States, they are employed as the modern equivalent of “hired guns,” dueling in court for their employer at the drop of a complaint or potential complaint.

William Shakespeare’s character Dick the butcher famously said in Henry the Sixth, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Thirty-five of the nation’s 55 founding fathers were lawyers or had benefited from legal education, although not all of them practiced law for their livelihood. Some also became judges.

We tend to think of lawyers as generally practicing the same type of law, largely, I suspect, because most of us don’t have any exposure to the full scope of legal specialties. We are most familiar with such legal specialties as business law, criminal law, tax and estate planning, family law (divorce), litigation and personal injury. But there are actually 260 areas of legal practice, some of which are quite esoteric. And within the fields with which we are most familiar, such as criminal law, there is a wide range of specialties, such as DNA, homicide, gang activity and death penalty cases.

Types of law that are not as commonly known are such fields as admiralty and maritime law, patent law, unfair competition, ethics and professional liability, and education law, to name a few.

Generally speaking, at some point — for good or ill — there is bound to be a lawyer in your life. Whatever we may think of them, we can’t do without them.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.