W&S Lawyer Employment Inches Up in 2017, Incomes Inch Down

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 2017 are now available, allowing a comprehensive summary of lawyer employment for that 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 2017 grew trivially to 1,137,000, up just 4,000 people. The CPS also estimated 781,000 people working as lawyers on a wage or salary basis, a 4.8 percent rise from the previous year (+36,000 lawyers). By contrast, the more accurate Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program found that the number of wage-and-salary lawyers grew by 1.4 percent last year to 628,370 (+8,840 jobs). The number of employee lawyers in the legal sector also grew by 1.4 percent to 388,670 (+5,940).

Employee lawyers’ incomes fell slightly in 2017. The OES estimated a -1.2 percent median hourly wage decline, although the CPS registered a striking 6.0 percent median weekly wage increase. Going by the OES, the last peak for lawyers’ earnings was 2009 (~$125,000 annually); incomes are about 7.8 percent lower (-$9,800) in real dollars since then. Here is an annualized dispersion.

These lawyer employment and income 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 seeking insight into that topic are instead advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes and the lawyer production page for a clear discussion of the BLS’s Employment Projections program.

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