The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) usually completes its updates of its many measures of occupational employment for the previous year by April. Data for 2015 are now available, allowing a comprehensive summary of lawyer employment for the year. For detailed discussion of what the BLS datasets are and how they address lawyer employment, I recommend the lawyer overproduction page [updated!].
For context, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS), the number of people who reported working as lawyers in 2015 grew 2.5 percent to 1,160,000. The employment projections program (EP program) placed the number of lawyer positions at 778,700 in 2014. The discrepancy between these two measures has existed for a long time and has yet to be explained. Although the CPS is considered more reliable, the EP program estimate is appropriate for discussing future lawyer employment. The CPS measures the number of people in an occupation, but the EP program estimates the number of positions in that occupation, including people holding multiple jobs. Both measures include part-time lawyers and self-employed lawyers in all industries.
The CPS also estimated 803,000 people working as lawyers on a wage or salary basis, an implausible 9.0 percent growth from the previous year (+66,000 lawyers). By contrast, the more accurate Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program found that the number of wage-and-salary lawyers grew by 1.1 percent last year to 609,930. The number of employee lawyers in the legal sector grew only a negligible 0.4 percent to 380,180.
Employee lawyers’ incomes were flat in 2015. The OES estimated a scant 0.6 percent median hourly wage growth, although the CPS registered a 4.2 percent median weekly wage increase. Going by the OES, the last peak for lawyers’ earnings was 2009; incomes are about $10,000 lower in real dollars since then. Here is an annualized dispersion.
These lawyer employment measures are not strong bellwethers for the value of legal education because they include many established lawyers and don’t measure recent graduate outcomes particularly well, especially those of graduates who do not promptly start careers in law. Readers are instead advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes for insight.