BLS Updates Its 2020 Employment Projections: For Law Students, It’s Very Bad

It turns out the Bureau of Labor Statistics updated its Employment Projections in February, though the Occupational Outlook Handbook will have to wait until later this month. Data for 2010-2020 are now available.

For lawyers, the 2010-2020 projection is even worse than 2008-2018, when the BLS predicted that the legal profession would add 98,500 new jobs and replace 141,900 lawyers who left the field by the end of the ten-year period. The new projection revises the number of lawyer jobs downward to 73,600 new jobs and 138,400 due to replacement. Note that the difference between the two sets of numbers places most of the loss on new lawyer positions. Incidentally, the BLS calculates 31,000 lost attorney jobs in 2009 and 2010. By comparison, dentists and doctors both saw job gains between 2008 and 2010, and both professions should encounter shortages by 2020 based on recent (albeit slightly older) graduation rates.

Alarmingly, extending the BLS’ 2018 projection to 2010, we find that there would’ve been 879,800 lawyer jobs, so the new projection sees a legal profession with 78,000 fewer positions than before, an 8.8 percent loss.

Here’s a chart to clarify.

Yes, the projections include self-employed lawyers, and yes, I still believe that the Current Population Survey greatly overstates the number of employed lawyers. That doesn’t make the employment projections correct, but I think they’re more accurate given the legal profession’s attrition rate relative to the number of J.D. holders.

And for those of you who think the Lesser Depression is the culprit, once again the BLS says that it’s projecting full employment in the target year:

“How do the BLS employment projections account for recessions?

The analysis underlying the BLS employment projections focuses on long-term structural change and growth and assumes a full employment economy in the target year. To the extent that recessions can cause long-term structural change, they may impact the projections. However, BLS does not project recessions.

How were the BLS 2010-20 employment projections affected by the recent recession?

The BLS employment projections are based on analysis of long-term structural changes to the economy, not short-term business cycle fluctuations. BLS does not attempt to project the peaks and troughs of business cycles, and the BLS projections model assumes a full employment economy in 2020, the target year. The 2010 (base year) employment for many industries still had not recovered to pre-recessionary levels when the 2010-20 projections were developed. This low employment, coupled with an expected return to full employment over the 10-year projections period, means faster growth rates and more numerous openings than might have been expected in these industries and their occupations had the recession not occurred.

Now, to ask, how does this look for new lawyers, to say nothing of the bottleneck that’s been swelling for the last decade at least?

Assuming graduation levels are flat, i.e. ~44,000 as they were in 2010, then we have 440,000 new law grads for 212,000 jobs, a projected employment rate of 48 percent.

If there are more grads as new law schools open or receive accreditation (Indiana Tech, North Texas, UMass, and others), then the ratio will be that much worse. If enrollments start dropping, more people will find work.

What does this mean precisely? The projection is over a long period of time, which can cause some unexpected distortions. For instance, law jobs that have high turnover rates will be held by multiple graduates who will be counted as employed in NALPian terms. If your garden variety new Biglaw associate position lasts exactly five years, then on average between two and three graduates will fill it every 10 years. Likewise, lawyer positions that have shorter life expectancies, especially solo practitioners, will have even higher turnover rates and will be filled by even more graduates. Moreover, as the BLS’ FAQ answer points out, as some industries recover to full employment they will refill lost positions and then add the new ones.

This is better news for law schools than for law students because it will skew graduation-plus-nine-month employment numbers upward, even though the medium- and long-term value of a law degree won’t be available to prospective law students. Remember, when two grads lacking other options form a law firm, they’re in “J.D. required” positions at 2-10-person law firms, even if the firm has a high chance of collapsing within a few years and the principals move on to more consistent work.


  1. “The BLS employment projections are based on analysis of long-term structural changes to the economy, not short-term business cycle fluctuations.”

    Advances in information technology will lead to greater automation, and further outsourcing of doc review. (ABA decisions also play a role, in this development. Why don’t we pay English-speaking foreign legal academics $30K annually, to provide online lectures?!) Hell, 15-20 years ago, if you wanted to view case law or statutes, you needed access to a law library. Now, the average citizen can view this, with the click of a mouse.

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