Commerce Dept.: Legal Services Sector Contracts (Again) in 2013

Earlier this month the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) updated its GDP by industry data. The chief finding for law-watchers is that in 2013 the legal services industry shrank by 2.9 percent. Ouch. The legal services industry includes all private law firms, and it employs about half of all lawyers. Meanwhile GDP grew by 2.2 percent, meaning that once again, the shriveling legal sector is being outdone by the rest of the economy.

Percent Change Real Value Added by Industry

(Source: GDP by Industry (xls), author’s calculations)

[Correction: Half of wage and salaried lawyers work in the legal services industry; most self-employed lawyers probably work there too.]

I’m providing moving averages to illustrate the break between the legal sector and GDP that began in 2005. That’s not to say things were hunky-dory before, just that those data still haven’t been revised yet. Go ahead, look at the old data and show me the situation was better before 1997. I dare you.

To editorialize, yes, the annual updates are horse-race reporting and recent years get revised a little bit each time, but I’m not enjoying reporting on the contracting legal sector nonetheless. I’m genuinely surprised that it’s still doing so badly, and I thought the Great Law Depression would’ve leveled out by now. Maybe future years and revisions will bear that out, but it’d take a sustained period of significant growth for the outlook to improve. Even a single year of 2.9 percent growth wouldn’t persuade me things are getting better, but even a piddly 0.4 percent would be nice to see.

To make things worse, when drilling into the real value added components, “compensation of employees” has been consistently contributing to the decline.

Contributions to Legal Services Real Value Added

(Source: GDP by Industry (xls), author’s calculations)

Only “taxes on production and imports (less subsidies)” has been growing consistently in the last three years.

The legal sector’s productivity measures are similarly unrelentingly bleak. Real value added per person engaged in production has fallen by about $20,000 since 1997 while the same measure has grown steadily throughout the economy and for the legal industry’s sibling in the “Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services” category, “Computer Systems Design and Related Services.”

Real Value Added Per Person Engaged in Production

(Source: Real Value Added by Industry, NIPA Table 6.8, author’s calculations)

If things keep going at this rate, the average legal services worker will be indistinguishable from the average worker overall. I guess it’s a good thing that the mean average worker isn’t anything like the median? It’s clear, though, that computer design is a much better candidate for “golden-ticket industry” than legal services.

Finally, we have the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ output per hour measure of labor productivity, which is a bit sharper than the real value added per person engaged in production estimated above.

Percent Change Output Per Hour

(Source: BLS Nonmanufacturing Multifactor Productivity Tables)

Here too, the long dashed moving average line (legal services) is comfortably below the thick line (nonfarm business), showing that the legal sector is not becoming more productive with the rest of the economy. More alarmingly, it’s lost about 8 percent of its productivity since 2007, and now the amount of private legal services the country is getting per hour worked is about what it was in 1988.

In conclusion, the data again depict a sputtering industry. For all the reporting on the declining supply of future law graduates, little is said about the long-term trends in the sector that’s most likely to drive demand for their services. Increasingly it appears to be dwindling while at the same time better opportunities for workers are forming in other sectors.

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