Legal Profession 1994-2008: 103,200 lawyer jobs for 561,220 ABA grads

“That the current employment rate is not lower [than 88.3%] is further evidence of the resilience and remarkably steady employment market for U.S. law school graduates, even in times of relative economic weakness.” – Selected Findings for the Class of 2009 (NALP)

Reading statements like these, Annie Lowery’s Slate article attributing the law school application drop to the scambloggers and the improving economy, and the Public Interest Institute’s study led me to ponder what government data have to say about overall employment for lawyers. Assuming every ABA law school graduate wants to become an attorney, i.e. highly discounting the “versatile juris doctor” argument, things have been very bad for law students for a long time. True, some people do pursue legal educations for non-attorney career tracks and others pursue second degrees and enter other fields, but this assumption must hold true if law schools are to be taken seriously at all. I culled Bureau of Labor Statistics attorney employment numbers courtesy of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. Apparently, for at least as long as the Internet has existed, the BLS has been banging the lawyer oversupply gong.

Let’s compare employed attorneys to ABA law school graduate output. I don’t have replacement data for this time period.

While the lines match up somewhat in the early 2000s, the growth in employed attorneys is insufficient to absorb all the graduates. To better illustrate, let’s compare net lawyer job growth to ABA graduate output.

The green line shows the required imputed lawyer attrition rate if we were to employ every graduate. Now, we know not all graduates get jobs (and how), we also know attorneys leave the field voluntarily or otherwise (including recent graduates counted earlier), so the imputed attrition rate is an idealistic calculation. Additionally, unfortunately for this dataset, 2001 and 2003 were bullish hiring years for the profession and the BLS gathers data on even numbered years. Oh well, not my problem. We also know that the quality of jobs has been decreasing: more contract work, deferred start dates, and growth in new solo practitioners trying to make a go of things.

Here’s the table:

YEAR: Employed Lawyers Net Growth ABA Grads Required Attrition
1994 656,000 N/A N/A N/A
~1996 622,000 -34,000 78,981 -112,981
~1998 681,000 59,000 80,034 -21,034
~2000 681,000 0 78,526 -78,526
~2002 695,000 14,000 76,066 -62,066
~2004 735,000 40,000 77,479 -37,479
~2006 761,000 26,000 82,696 -56,696
~2008 759,200 -1,800 87,438 -89,238
Totals: 15.73% 103,200 561,220 -458,020

In sum, the economy added a paltry 103,200 lawyer jobs (barely one percent annual growth) for 561,220 graduates between 1994 and 2008. That’s 5.44 graduates per lawyer position over that time period, sadly excluding the replacement rate. In 2009 and 2010, a total of 87,592 people graduated from an ABA law school, and at the 2010 going forward (44,004), between 2008 and 2018 there will be 439,624 new ABA law graduates to compete for 240,400 lawyer jobs, a rate of 1.83 graduates per job. For an apples-to-apples comparison, it’ll be 439,624 graduates to a net of 98,500 jobs, or 4.46:1, which is better than what we’ve had in the past. Because the system is still growing, the actual ratio will increase. If we want a 1:1 applicant to job ratio, enrollments will have to be reduced by more than 55% as of 2008, and that says nothing graduates from non-ABA law schools. The BLS assumes the economy will be at full employment by 2018, so thankfully we can omit underemployed lawyers.

ABA Awakens?

Which leads me to the ABA Standards Review Committee’s Consumer Information Subcommittee’s proposed change to law school employment disclosure requirements.

Anyone who’s read the chart on page 4 will undoubtedly agree it’s a step-up from today’s law school advertising. Transparency advocates must be licking their lips. My complaints are (a) it idealistically assumes everyone who’s employed has had only one job nine months after graduation, and (b) like all transparency initiatives, it is subject to the whim of the “nine months after graduation” standard, which the ABA collects in place of “employed at graduation” because many employers won’t hire people until they’ve passed a bar exam. Law schools, NALP, and transparentists can’t tell us what will happen to graduates two or more years from graduation, even though it’s critical information applicants need. The data I’ve gathered here are the best proxy we have.

If the standard is adopted, expect law schools to lean hard on the bottleneck and versatile JD arguments, convincing applicants that they’ll be employed in the future because the economy is improving just for them. They’ll essentially sell out recent graduates, but law schools will say that students take on the market risk and that they aren’t responsible for the economy, which is true. However, it’s safe to say that if scambloggers can convince people not to go, the law schools’ own shocking employment data will do quite a bit of damage to their own credibility. 0Ls’ reasonableness will be put to the test, though I personally believe many people will still go to law school out of perceived financial desperation. I doubt transparency will be sufficient to save the legal education system.

Adoption of the ABA proposal is also a subtle moral test of the transparency movement, which I’ve felt has been opaque about the lawyer oversupply problem. I hope transparency advocates (to say nothing of the incredible NALP) aren’t surprised at the results that logically follow from what the government has been saying since I was in middle school: A long-term career as a lawyer is a fantasy for the majority of law students and for the federal government that unquestioningly finances the legal education system.

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