The purpose of Report One is to insert the nation’s most authoritative employment data into the public dialogue about the national legal employment picture. Since the onset of the recession and during the slow recovery, this public dialogue has been dominated by bloggers and a small element within the media. According to their posts and stories, lawyers are largely unemployed, law school graduates have no hope for employment, and the investment in law school is not worthwhile. They assert that attending law school is a bad decision because of the lack of jobs, given the cost of legal education. Most of these assertions are anecdotal, unbalanced, lacking in factual support, and as Report One reveals, contrary to official U.S. employment data. (Report One: National Employment, page 1)
A reader sent me the link to a monumental face-palmer: Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s “Report One: National Employment.” As a blogger who does not (always) use evidence that is “anecdotal, unbalanced, and lacking in factual support” to show that lawyers are “largely unemployed, law school graduates have no hope for employment, and the investment in law school is not worthwhile,” I can tell you that Cooley’s efforts are unconvincing, and its defensive references to “the bloggers and media,” and the like are sure to entertain readers.
Readers may recall Cooley’s president, Don LeDuc, stating that the unemployment rate for lawyers in 2010 was 1.5% while legal sector unemployment stood at 2.7%, and the national rate was 9.6%. Now Cooley sneers, “These facts have been curiously absent in the public dialogue about the national legal employment picture … Both rates contradict the claims of high unemployment in the legal profession asserted by the bloggers and media.” I tried to find the exact unemployment number on the BLS’s website, but the best I could do was find it relayed by a Wall Street Journal article. In Report One, Cooley claims the data come from the Current Population Survey (CPS), but I can’t find the specific lawyer unemployment rate. Better researchers provide links to their data, so we will have to wait for Cooley to release the full version of Report One.
Cooley’s argument, of course (and I do mean of course), is full of holes. It vainly assumes that the legal profession is a closed system, meaning that everyone who completed law school before 2010 had a lawyer position waiting for him or her upon graduation. This has probably never been the case as demand for lawyers and demand for law degrees has never been connected since the ABA locked in its near monopoly on legal education half a century ago. Anyone who could not find their way into practice, and anyone who was forced into a non-legal career won’t be counted by the CPS as an unemployed attorney. This explains why the lawyer unemployment rate is “absent in the public dialogue about the national legal employment picture”: it is useless.
Report One also fails to tell us what the CPS thinks of self-employed attorneys. Is an ousted partner unemployed or self-employed? What shocks me about attorney unemployment is that Cooley should have some idea of what’s happened to its graduates. Are all but a handful of Cooley grads over the last thirty-some years employed as attorneys? Really?
I don’t usually criticize the BLS’s numbers about anything, but the employment rate for legal sector Cooley quotes from the CPS is way higher than what its “Employment Situation” provides. This is very important given Cooley’s claim that the recession didn’t damage the legal sector. Here’s what legal sector employment has looked like since 1990:
Note that the legal sector has stagnated since 2009. Unless radical compositional changes are going on, i.e. every clerk and paralegal is being fired in favor of a licensed attorney, there is no way a reasonable person can arrive at Cooley’s conclusions. Report One closes:
In sum, the data shows that the blogs and media segment have it almost completely wrong. Unbiased national data from the past ten years establishes that the legal profession has one of the lowest unemployment rates, one of the most stable job markets, and is one of the least susceptible to the effects of economic recession, making the legal profession one of the best career choices.
Here’s the counterargument from the side whose “assertions are anecdotal, unbalanced, lacking in factual support.” This is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) said about lawyers in 2008.
“Job prospects. Competition for job openings should continue to be keen because of the large number of students graduating from law school each year.” “Keen competition” means there will be fewer job openings than applicants. The OOH said the same thing as far back as the Internet goes. For instance, of 1994 it stated:
Individuals interested in pursuing careers as lawyers or judges should encounter keen competition through the year 2005. Law schools still attract large numbers of applicants and are not expected to decrease their enrollments, so the supply of persons trained as lawyers should continue to exceed job openings.
The OOH says the same thing in every intervening year. It will say it again when the 2010 edition comes out.
The OOH also projects future growth, and it predicts that between 2008 and 2018, the U.S. economy will add 240,400 lawyer jobs. In spring 2010, 44,258 received juris doctors from an ABA-accredited law school. 440,000 graduates over a ten-year period is totally unsustainable. Neither of these data appears in Report One. Perhaps Cooley will provide a surrebuttal showing me how I “have it almost completely wrong.”
Cooley’s Report One is bad enough for its amateur methodology (and this is coming from an amateur), but to close it with sweeping conclusions about the stability of the legal profession and the value of legal education marks it as a true embarrassment to Cooley and the profession.