Half of States to See Decline in Lawyer Surpluses

In August, the National Association for Law Placement verified a trend that appeared in ABA data several months earlier: Despite the falling supply of law school graduates, demand for their work stubbornly refuses to materialize. In fact, the number of graduates who found work as lawyers fell far more than the number of unemployed graduates, suggesting that either many graduates failed the bar or that new lawyer jobs are much more transitory than they appear.

But if the short term trend indicates fewer lawyers in the future, what about the long-term outlook?

Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics updated its biennial state-level occupational employment projections. These data include an estimate of the number of lawyer positions (not people who are lawyers) out there in 2014, a prediction of how many there will be in 2024, and the projected number of annual lawyer job openings. This last figure can be compared to the number of new law licenses issued courtesy of the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) or law school graduates (from the ABA) to give the “lawyer surplus” and the “law graduate surplus,” respectively.

There are a few reasons to calculate two surplus ratios rather than one. For the lawyer surplus, the NCBE’s number of new law licenses includes many duplicates—people who become licensed in more than one jurisdiction—but it helps track people who obtain licenses on motion to places where few people sit for the bar, e.g. Washington D.C. Meanwhile, the law graduate surplus measures discrete individuals, but it excludes people who go to non-ABA-accredited law schools and not everyone who graduates from an ABA law school finds jobs as lawyers.

The two surpluses permit comparisons among states’ legal markets to show which parts of the country might provide better opportunities for new lawyers, but they are not a direct proxy for the typical number of people seeking job openings.

First, here’s a table of the state-level occupational employment information for the 2014-24 period compared to the 2012-22 period. The “STATES” row is the sum of the data from the state-level employment information, including the District of Columbia but excluding Puerto Rico, but the “U.S.A.” row is from the national projections provided by the BLS late last year. The STATES row and the Bureau of Economic Analysis regions below only include jurisdictions that reported in both time periods to ensure relevant comparisons.

STATE/BEA REGION NO. EMPLOYED LAWYERS LAWYER EMPLOYMENT PROJECTIONS ANNUAL LAWYER GROWTH RATE
2012 2014 2022 2024 2022 2024
Alabama 7,040 7,050 7,710 7,410 180 140
Alaska 1,020 1,070 1,010 1,020 20 20
Arizona 11,740 9,630 14,160 11,870 430 370
Arkansas 4,420 4,720 4,940 5,360 120 130
California 87,400 91,900 97,300 102,700 2,390 2,420
Colorado 15,800 15,800 19,280 19,270 600 600
Connecticut 9,390 12,620 10,080 13,080 220 230
Delaware 3,400 3,540 3,700 3,660 80 60
District of Columbia 33,460 38,920 35,040 41,480 690 830
Florida 51,860 59,400 61,310 68,400 1,930 1,770
Georgia 19,520 18,160 23,220 19,690 680 420
Hawaii 2,460 2,410 2,580 2,500 50 40
Idaho 2,700 N/A 2,820 N/A 60 N/A
Illinois 34,810 35,840 38,400 37,950 920 740
Indiana 7,680 9,450 8,810 10,520 240 250
Iowa 4,450 4,340 5,050 4,880 130 120
Kansas 4,950 5,090 5,610 5,570 150 130
Kentucky 5,600 9,490 6,450 10,640 300 250
Louisiana 9,310 9,180 10,490 9,730 270 190
Maine 2,930 3,170 3,010 3,210 60 50
Maryland 14,800 11,690 16,330 13,370 390 360
Massachusetts 22,640 22,100 24,590 23,080 560 420
Michigan N/A 17,900 N/A 19,230 N/A 400
Minnesota 12,550 12,640 13,080 13,340 260 260
Mississippi 3,220 3,760 3,460 4,030 80 80
Missouri 12,620 12,470 14,410 13,160 380 250
Montana 2,270 2,550 2,530 2,830 60 70
Nebraska 4,060 3,910 4,430 4,400 100 110
Nevada 5,640 6,030 6,260 7,880 150 270
New Hampshire 2,280 2,010 2,380 2,070 50 40
New Jersey 24,150 24,520 26,390 25,140 610 420
New Mexico 3,830 3,810 3,980 3,830 80 60
New York 82,220 90,830 88,680 99,020 1,960 2,150
North Carolina 14,810 16,020 17,500 17,870 510 420
North Dakota 1,540 1,740 1,680 1,790 40 30
Ohio 21,160 20,180 23,480 21,290 570 410
Oklahoma 9,260 9,480 10,270 10,290 250 220
Oregon 5,070 8,250 5,830 9,440 160 240
Pennsylvania 31,260 31,240 34,700 32,960 840 630
Puerto Rico 4,440 4,420 5,040 4,500 130 70
Rhode Island N/A 4,210 N/A 4,460 N/A 90
South Carolina 7,140 7,220 7,950 7,670 200 150
South Dakota 1,400 980 1,540 1,080 40 20
Tennessee 8,010 7,990 10,520 8,690 380 200
Texas 49,350 51,420 60,090 63,140 1,800 1,920
Utah 5,890 5,310 7,470 6,360 250 180
Vermont 2,030 1,940 2,150 1,990 40 30
Virginia 20,430 21,860 23,030 24,150 590 550
Washington 16,290 17,290 20,070 18,940 670 430
West Virginia N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Wisconsin 9,330 9,620 10,740 9,940 290 170
Wyoming 1,050 1,160 1,170 1,130 30 20
STATES (EXCL. P.R.) 711,540 749,800 802,860 827,820 20,800 18,870
U.S.A. (EXCL. P.R.) 759,800 778,700 834,700 822,500 19,650 15,770
New England 39,270 41,840 42,210 43,430 930 770
Mideast 189,290 200,740 204,840 215,630 4,570 4,450
Great Lakes 72,980 75,090 81,430 79,700 2,020 1,570
Plains 41,570 41,170 45,800 44,220 1,100 920
Southeast 151,360 164,850 176,580 183,640 5,240 4,300
Southwest 74,180 74,340 88,500 89,130 2,560 2,570
Rocky Mountains 25,010 24,820 30,450 29,590 940 870
Far West 117,880 126,950 133,050 142,480 3,440 3,420

Superficially, some states seem to have created many new lawyer jobs between 2012 and 2014. For example, it’s doubtful that Kentucky’s and Oregon’s legal markets grew by more than 60 percent in just two years, or that South Dakota’s contracted by 30 percent. The only state whose large swing may be plausible is Nevada’s. Its lawyer job count grew by about 7 percent since 2012, but its 10-year outlook rose by 25 percent with a corresponding 80 percent surge in projected annual job openings. On average, annual job openings sank by 12 percent among jurisdictions that reported in both periods while excluding Puerto Rico. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia had higher annual job growth rates than in 2012. The rate of decline in annual job growth for all jurisdictions that reported in both years and excluding Puerto Rico is 9 percent, which is less alarming than the BLS’s 20 percent drop for the whole country.

Offsetting the slowdown in lawyer job growth is somewhat greater losses in bar admits and law school graduates, 13 percent and 14 percent, respectively. The result is that 24 states and the District of Columbia have smaller lawyer and law graduate surpluses in 2014 than 2012. Overwhelmingly, the cause in these jurisdictions is modest annual job growth projections coupled with strong losses in new graduates and new lawyers. Here’s the full table.

# STATE/BEA REGION NO. ABA LAW SCHOOL GRADS NO. BAR ADMITS RATIO ABA GRADS TO ANNUAL LAWYER JOBS RATIO BAR ADMITS TO ANNUAL LAWYER JOBS
2013 2015 2013 2015 2013 2015 2013 2015
1 Wyoming 78 73 161 198 2.60 3.65 5.37 9.90
2 North Dakota 75 79 267 219 1.88 2.63 6.68 7.30
3 Alaska 0 0 130 140 0.00 0.00 6.50 7.00
4 New Hampshire 107 70 250 272 2.14 1.75 5.00 6.80
5 Puerto Rico 662 569 491 458 5.09 8.13 3.78 6.54
6 New Jersey 859 585 3,386 2,586 1.41 1.39 5.55 6.16
7 New Mexico 114 112 287 292 1.43 1.87 3.59 4.87
8 Massachusetts 2,391 2,164 2,411 1,981 4.27 5.15 4.31 4.72
9 Hawaii 108 111 206 188 2.16 2.78 4.12 4.70
10 South Dakota 73 63 121 93 1.83 3.15 3.03 4.65
11 Wisconsin 485 447 843 781 1.67 2.63 2.91 4.59
12 Missouri 883 700 1,034 1,051 2.32 2.80 2.72 4.20
13 New York 5,007 4,105 10,251 8,867 2.55 1.91 5.23 4.12
14 Washington 654 579 1,353 1,759 0.98 1.35 2.02 4.09
15 Maryland 600 537 1,742 1,382 1.54 1.49 4.47 3.84
16 Tennessee 501 533 1,011 741 1.32 2.67 2.66 3.71
17 Minnesota 942 723 1,028 939 3.62 2.78 3.95 3.61
18 Vermont 203 163 151 108 5.08 5.43 3.78 3.60
19 Illinois 2,278 2,036 3,184 2,525 2.48 2.75 3.46 3.41
20 Louisiana 936 822 533 630 3.47 4.33 1.97 3.32
21 South Carolina 442 335 598 494 2.21 2.23 2.99 3.29
22 Alabama 427 351 503 454 2.37 2.51 2.79 3.24
23 Pennsylvania 1,703 1,418 2,241 1,927 2.03 2.25 2.67 3.06
24 Utah 292 258 499 548 1.17 1.43 2.00 3.04
25 Iowa 328 263 416 356 2.52 2.19 3.20 2.97
26 Maine 96 78 183 145 1.60 1.56 3.05 2.90
27 Mississippi 377 274 305 232 4.71 3.43 3.81 2.90
28 District of Columbia 2,181 1,916 3,120 2,389 3.16 2.31 4.52 2.88
29 Georgia 1,085 931 1,377 1,205 1.60 2.22 2.03 2.87
30 Ohio 1,474 1,088 1,444 1,172 2.59 2.65 2.53 2.86
31 Michigan 2,206 1,606 1,248 1,082 N/A 4.02 N/A 2.71
32 Kansas 324 255 393 340 2.16 1.96 2.62 2.62
33 Nebraska 249 245 316 285 2.49 2.23 3.16 2.59
34 North Carolina 1,429 1,422 1,091 1,072 2.80 3.39 2.14 2.55
35 California 5,184 4,392 7,008 6,150 2.17 1.81 2.93 2.54
36 Indiana 834 764 675 625 3.48 3.06 2.81 2.50
37 Oregon 527 427 659 574 3.29 1.78 4.12 2.39
38 Connecticut 541 477 680 530 2.46 2.07 3.09 2.30
39 Virginia 1,440 1,277 1,590 1,252 2.44 2.32 2.69 2.28
40 Montana 81 82 204 158 1.35 1.17 3.40 2.26
41 Arizona 640 705 906 835 1.49 1.91 2.11 2.26
42 Arkansas 275 255 302 268 2.29 1.96 2.52 2.06
43 Rhode Island 174 129 201 175 N/A 1.43 N/A 1.94
44 Colorado 437 439 1,217 1,125 0.73 0.73 2.03 1.88
45 Kentucky 422 395 668 463 1.41 1.58 2.23 1.85
46 Florida 3,190 2,718 3,476 3,177 1.65 1.54 1.80 1.79
47 Texas 2,323 2,075 3,836 3,346 1.29 1.08 2.13 1.74
48 Delaware 279 170 148 99 3.49 2.83 1.85 1.65
49 Oklahoma 468 380 463 350 1.87 1.73 1.85 1.59
50 Nevada 132 131 343 321 0.88 0.49 2.29 1.19
N/A Idaho 117 106 231 212 1.95 N/A 3.85 N/A
N/A West Virginia 130 125 274 242 N/A N/A N/A N/A
STATES (EXCL. P.R.) 43,474 37,423 63,010 54,644 2.09 1.98 3.03 2.90
U.S.A. (EXCL. P.R.) 46,101 39,389 64,964 56,355 2.35 2.50 3.31 3.57
New England 3,338 2,952 3,675 3,036 3.59 3.83 3.95 3.94
Mideast 10,629 8,731 20,888 17,250 2.33 1.96 4.57 3.88
Great Lakes 5,071 4,335 6,146 5,103 2.51 2.76 3.04 3.25
Plains 2,874 2,328 3,575 3,283 2.61 2.53 3.25 3.57
Southeast 10,524 9,313 11,454 9,988 2.01 2.17 2.19 2.32
Southwest 3,545 3,272 5,492 4,823 1.38 1.27 2.15 1.88
Rocky Mountains 888 852 2,081 2,029 0.94 0.98 2.21 2.33
Far West 6,605 5,640 9,699 9,132 1.92 1.65 2.82 2.67

Of the 22 states that produced higher lawyer surpluses than before, all but three showed steep declines in annual lawyer job creation, nearly all of them over 25 percent. Washington State stands out in particular because it admitted 30 percent more lawyers while its lawyer market is expected to produce 36 percent fewer jobs annually. On the other hand, it has 12 percent fewer graduates in 2015 than 2013 and some growth in lawyer employment, so there are reasons to believe its outlook isn’t so bad. Other states tell similar stories.

The BLS’s methodology distinguishes jobs created by economic growth from those created by replacement of people leaving the occupation. The annual number of positions created by growth is measured by simply taking the difference between the predicted number of employed lawyers in 2024 and 2014, and then dividing that by ten. The annual number of jobs created by replacement can be found by subtracting the number of jobs created by growth from the number of jobs created annually. Consequently, it’s possible to explore which category of jobs states think will (or won’t open up). Consistent with the BLS’s national-level employment projections, state governments predominantly predict jobs created by economic growth will plummet while jobs created by vacancies will fall at a smaller rate.

Notably, among states that reported employment data for 2012 and 2014, the cumulative number of annual openings (18,870) is much higher than the BLS’s more dour prediction (15,770). This suggests that the BLS is much more pessimistic about lawyer job growth than state governments are. Specifically, about 41 percent of lawyer job openings will be created by growth according to the state projections as opposed to 28 percent as reported by the BLS. Hopefully the former will pan out for new graduates who pass the bar.

Overall, it’s good news that lawyer surpluses are falling, even if it isn’t a widespread phenomenon and not due to a bright future for the legal profession. It’s unclear why state governments and the BLS are so pessimistic about lawyer job growth compared to two years ago. The ultimate cause may be due to predictions of slow job growth in general and not lawyer jobs specifically. Although that development is discouraging, the crash in law students is compensating for it, meaning fewer graduates will struggle to find work.

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