Attorney Overproduction

BLS Projects Only 43,800 New Lawyer Jobs by 2024

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its employment projections for the next cycle: 2014-2024.

In 2014, the BLS estimated that there were 778,700 lawyer positions (as opposed to discrete lawyers) in the United States. This figure includes self-employed lawyers. In 2012, the Employment Projections Program found 759,800 lawyer positions, so there has been some growth. According to the Current Population Survey, in 2014, 1.132 million people worked as lawyers in the United States. The discrepancy between the CPS and the EPP has existed for some time. In their respective contexts, both figures are correct.

The BLS projects future employment trends in part to help job seekers evaluate career choices, and the projections play a significant role in the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Here is an illustration, from various sources, of law-school graduate and lawyer growth since the 1980s.

Lawyer & Graduate Estimates (1983-2024)

Between 2014 and 2024, the BLS estimates a total 157,700 net lawyer jobs will be created. Of those, only 43,800 can be attributed to economic growth over the decade. The rest, 113,900, consist of net occupational replacements. Last year, I wrote about how the BLS plans to revise its replacement methodology, switching from a net replacement measurement to a gross one. When applied to lawyers, it appeared more jobs would be created annually than under the current methodology. The BLS has not yet adopted the new methodology.

Unfortunately—and despite my warnings—some law professors concluded that a higher replacement rate meant better job prospects for law school graduates. However, this position fails to account for turnover—the rate at which lawyers leave the law for different occupations or leave the labor force entirely. In fact, in a prototype analysis of the new methodology, the BLS estimated that over ten years one lawyer in four would move to a different occupation. By comparison, the rate for physicians was only 15 percent. It is unlikely that every lawyer moving to a different occupation will find work in a field that requires the skills and knowledge obtained in law school or pays accordingly.

The BLS typically divides the ten-year employment projection by ten, suggesting that only 15,770 lawyer positions will be created each year until 2024. Despite falling law-school enrollments, but with the number of applicants possibly rising, it does not appear that the economy will be able to absorb all new lawyers completing law school. Indeed, in 2014, 43,800 people graduated from ABA law schools, but it’s likely that fewer than 40,000 graduated in 2015. The number of people admitted to the bar by admission and diploma privilege—a measure of new lawyer growth—was 54,820 in 2014, but this includes many duplicates.

The number of law school graduates and new bar admits far exceed the projected lawyer job growth rate. Consequently, it appears that although interest in law school has waned, far more people are attending law school than the profession can employ.

My opinions of J.D. advantage jobs can be found here.

My comprehensive explanation of the various measures of law-school grads and lawyers can be found on this page. It also should contain any links I may have omitted in this post.

Site Update: Lawyer Overproduction Page

You can find it here or in the “original research (updated)” menu above. It’s long overdue as I’ve received requests for its sources.

I also delisted the “law schools and law students per capita” page. It hadn’t been updated in around three years, and the lawyer overproduction page pretty much supersedes it. It’s a little sad because that was the first research project I started on this blog back in the summer of ’10. Maybe I’ll come up with a reason to put it back into the mix, but not now.

New BLS Employment Projections: Only 196,500 New Lawyer Jobs by 2022

Despite the shutdown, the Bureau of Labor Statistics managed to update its employment projections for 2012 to 2022 a tad earlier than I expected. You can find them here.

One bit of good news for the legal profession is that between 2010 and 2012, the BLS estimated some growth in the number of lawyers employed in the U.S., 728,200 in 2010, 759,800 today. It’s about the same as in 2008 (759,200). However, back in 2002, the BLS projected 813,000 lawyer jobs for 2012, so once again, the projections were overoptimistic.

BLS OOH Lawyer Employment Projections

The bad news is that the projected number of employed lawyers in 2022 (834,700) is lower than in previous years, e.g. 857,700 in 2018. Moreover, the job growth rate is declining. In 2020, the BLS projected a total of 212,000 jobs due to growth and replacement. Between 2012 and 2022, the total is 196,500 lawyer positions. Dividing by ten, this means that 19,650 jobs are predicted to be created annually. Despite the law school applicant nosedive, the number of jobs law graduates and lawyers will be competing over appear to be diminishing, mainly due to fewer positions being replaced.

Here’s the master lawyer oversupply and law graduate overproduction chart. The 2000 edition of the Official Guide lists the number of new lawyers, and I supplemented that with National Conference of Bar Examiners data on lawyer licensing (which includes some people who were admitted by examination in more than one jurisdiction, so there’s some overcounting).

Lawyer and Law Graduate Projections (1983-2022)

I’d comment more, but…

I have to give a lecture on college education and student loan debt at the Henry George School of Social Science at 6:30, TONIGHT (i.e. Friday, December 20, 2013). DETAILS HERE.

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.

Law Graduate Overproduction by State (aka “The Holy Grail”)


Choropleth Map of ABA Graduates per Job Opening by State (Indiana & Iowa are average)

This week’s breakthrough—discovering the national lawyer replacement projection data from 2008 to 2018 (240,400 gross jobs)—led to an even bigger breakthrough: lawyer replacement data by state over the same time period. I never dreamed I’d be able to find this when I started this blog.

Taking 2009 graduate numbers from the LSAC against state lawyer employment projections, we can compare lawyer overproduction state-by-state, telling us where there are too many law students and law schools. There are a few limitations with the data:

(1)  They necessarily exclude non-ABA law schools because no centralized authorities track them. This is unfortunate because non-ABA law schools account for 16.74% of all law schools (I continue to exclude correspondence schools and the JAG school). Mainly this means California’s values are extremely suspect.

(2)  The sum of the state replacement projections does not come close to the federal government’s projection. More below.

(3)  South Dakota does not provide any data, but it can’t have any more than 2,000 employed lawyers in 2008. My guess is its projections should be similar to North Dakota’s and Montana’s.

(4)  Overproduction assumes every graduate works in the state he or she attended law school. This obviously isn’t true. It’s also theoretically possible that some law schools deliberately “underbid” those in other states, i.e. cheaply producing better lawyers and exporting them to undercut local law schools (Widener’s Gambit?). I dismiss this hypothesis as dubious given tuition rates, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. The oversupply problem wouldn’t exist if there were clear attorney shortages to compensate for surplus production in other regions. The following results demonstrate only two states underproducing lawyers: Alaska and Nevada, but those two can’t possibly absorb the tens of thousands of excess law graduates produced per year elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are two pieces of good news:

(a)   the 2008 employment numbers are close enough between the states and the national government that they look like they include self-employed attorneys (solos and partners), and

(b)  The BLS assumes the economy will be at full employment by 2018, so as far as overproduction is concerned, we need not worry about today’s underemployed attorneys whom the BLS predicts will be employed doing something else (though that says nothing about their student debt and whether they’ll be gainfully employed at all).

Here’s a chart of the results, sorted by annual ABA graduate surplus because absolute overproduction more dramatically impacts the legal education system and people’s lives than relative overproduction.

The number in parentheses is the number of ABA-accredited law schools in that state as of 2011. * means the state has one or more non-ABA accredited law schools, and as always D.C. and Puerto Rico are counted as states for the purposes of this analysis.

# STATE Average Annual Job Openings ABA Grads (2009) Annual Surplus Grads/ Opening
1 New York (15) 1,700 4,776 3,076 2.81
2 California (20)* 2,360 4,688 2,328 1.99
3 Massachusetts (7)* 430 2,316 1,886 5.39
4 Michigan (5) 470 2,016 1,546 4.29
5 Florida (11) 1,370 2,787 1,417 2.03
6 District of Columbia (6) 970 2,129 1,159 2.19
7 Pennsylvania (8) 640 1,715 1,075 2.68
8 Illinois (9) 1,130 2,166 1,036 1.92
9 Ohio (9) 460 1,495 1,035 3.25
10 Texas (9) 1,500 2,337 837 1.56
11 Virginia (8) 730 1,429 699 1.96
12 Missouri (4) 220 898 678 4.08
13 North Carolina (7) 450 1,055 605 2.34
14 Minnesota (4) 370 962 592 2.60
15 Louisiana (4) 250 811 561 3.24
16 Indiana (4) 340 828 488 2.44
17 Delaware (1) 60 537 477 8.95
18 Puerto Rico (3) 100 554 454 5.54
19 Oregon (3) 160 531 371 3.32
20 Connecticut (3) 190 531 341 2.79
21 Wisconsin (2) 190 487 297 2.56
22 Oklahoma (3) 210 494 284 2.35
23 Maryland (2) 270 548 278 2.03
24 Washington (3) 440 694 254 1.58
25 New Jersey (3) 540 791 251 1.46
26 Tennessee (3)* 210 445 235 2.12
27 South Carolina (2) 190 405 215 2.13
28 Kentucky (3) 180 385 205 2.14
29 Alabama (3)* 200 405 205 2.03
30 Iowa (2) 140 341 201 2.44
31 Mississippi (2) 150 347 197 2.31
32 Colorado (2) 330 518 188 1.57
33 Nebraska (2) 100 280 180 2.80
34 Arkansas (2) 110 249 139 2.26
35 Georgia (5) 760 896 136 1.18
36 Vermont (1) 60 191 131 3.18
37 Kansas (2) 170 297 127 1.75
38 Rhode Island (1) 80 184 104 2.30
39 Arizona (3) 280 378 98 1.35
40 New Hampshire (1) 50 144 94 2.88
41 West Virginia (1) 60 149 89 2.48
42 North Dakota (1) 30 83 53 2.77
43 Maine (1) 50 93 43 1.86
44 New Mexico (1) 70 112 42 1.60
45 Wyoming (1) 30 71 41 2.37
46 Hawaii (1) 60 88 28 1.47
47 Montana (1) 60 77 17 1.28
48 Idaho (1) 90 93 3 1.03
49 Utah (2) 280 281 1 1.00
50 Nevada (1) 150 140 -10 0.93
51 Alaska (0) 30 0 -30 0.00
52 South Dakota (1) N/A 73 N/A N/A
USA (199) 24,040 44,000 19,960 1.83

You’ll note that the USA is supposed to add 24,040 lawyer jobs per year even though adding the individual state entries in the third column equals only 19,470, a deficit of 4,570 lawyer jobs per year that I highly doubt are all in South Dakota. The lower state sum means that the economy will gross only 194,700 lawyer jobs by 2018, and the national graduate to job ratio will be 2.2. The difference between the state sum and the national projection is important because the national number implies a 45.4% reduction in enrollments (~90 law schools) to stabilize the system while the former state number implies a larger 54.5% enrollment reduction equal to about 109 law schools. I don’t know what methodology labor departments use, but kudos go to Frank the Underemployed Professional of Fluster Cucked for subtracting ABA grads from forty years ago and coming up with a surplus similar to the BLS’s projection. For stats wonks, the median state surplus is 235, the mean 485.43, and the standard deviation 630.75.

As for the ratio of graduates to job openings, the median is 2.26, the mean 2.44, and the standard deviation 1.37. Only Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Alaska are below the first standard deviation; Michigan and Missouri are in the second standard deviation above the average; Massachusetts and Puerto Rico are in the third, and Delaware is in the fifth.

To spare you another table, here’s a chart listing the graduate to job ratio:

For giggles, here’s Widener’s (DE) most recent bar passage rates as reported to the ABA and LSAC:

Of the 193 graduates in 2009 who were employed nine months after graduation, less than one quarter (48) were employed in-state. Graduates flocked to twelve (!) other states, and a clear majority took the Pennsylvania bar. Widener didn’t even bother reporting how many people took the Delaware bar. So the 8.95 graduates to annual job openings ratio isn’t implausible at all.

And for an appendix, here’s a table of the states by employed lawyers, growth rates, net jobs between 2008 and 2018, and the average annual job openings.

STATE Employed Lawyers(2008) Projected LawyerEmployment(2018) Growth Rate Net Jobs(2018)
Average AnnualJobOpenings
Alabama (3)* 7,910 8,420 6.45% 510 200
Alaska (0) 1,330 1,270 -4.51% -60 30
Arizona (3) 11,880 12,450 4.80% 570 280
Arkansas (2) 3,430 3,840 11.95% 410 110
California (20)* 94,900 100,800 6.22% 5,900 2,360
Colorado (2) 14,090 14,710 4.40% 620 330
Connecticut (3) 9,940 9,930 -0.10% -10 190
Delaware (1) 2,900 3,000 3.45% 100 60
District of Columbia (6) 42,410 44,180 4.17% 1,770 970
Florida (11) 52,980 56,820 7.25% 3,840 1,370
Georgia (5) 20,900 24,560 17.51% 3,660 760
Hawaii (1) 2,970 2,950 -0.67% -20 60
Idaho (1) 2,710 3,080 13.65% 370 90
Illinois (9) 38,080 42,290 11.06% 4,210 1,130
Indiana (4) 9,740 11,310 16.12% 1,570 340
Iowa (2) 4,340 4,910 13.13% 570 140
Kansas (2) 5,210 5,940 14.01% 730 170
Kentucky (3) 6,510 7,070 8.60% 560 180
Louisiana (4) 10,770 11,270 4.64% 500 250
Maine (1) 2,800 2,800 0.00% 0 50
Maryland (2) 14,300 13,570 -5.10% -730 270
Massachusetts (7)* 21,600 21,900 1.39% 300 430
Michigan (5) 19,030 20,210 6.20% 1,180 470
Minnesota (4) 15,290 16,160 5.69% 870 370
Mississippi (2) 5,260 5,740 9.13% 480 150
Missouri (4) 11,520 11,410 -0.95% -110 220
Montana (1) 1,870 2,070 10.70% 200 60
Nebraska (2) 3,400 3,750 10.29% 350 100
Nevada (1) 4,840 5,690 17.56% 850 150
New Hampshire (1) 2,350 2,400 2.13% 50 50
New Jersey (3) 28,650 28,650 0.00% 0 540
New Mexico (1) 3,550 3,580 0.85% 30 70
New York (15) 86,140 87,080 1.09% 940 1,700
North Carolina (7) 14,310 16,170 13.00% 1,860 450
North Dakota (1) 1,240 1,300 4.84% 60 30
Ohio (9) 19,860 20,750 4.48% 890 460
Oklahoma (3) 8,100 8,680 7.16% 580 210
Oregon (3) 4,980 5,610 12.65% 630 160
Pennsylvania (8) 28,400 29,400 3.52% 1,000 640
Puerto Rico (3) 4,180 4,350 4.07% 170 100
Rhode Island (1) 2,710 2,980 9.96% 270 80
South Carolina (2) 6,640 7,260 9.34% 620 190
South Dakota (1) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Tennessee (3)* 8,720 9,160 5.05% 440 210
Texas (9) 44,680 51,360 14.95% 6,680 1,500
Utah (2) 7,080 8,580 21.19% 1,500 280
Vermont (1) 2,070 2,270 9.66% 200 60
Virginia (8) 19,780 23,390 18.25% 3,610 730
Washington (3) 14,840 16,320 9.97% 1,480 440
West Virginia (1) 2,940 2,970 1.02% 30 60
Wisconsin (2) 10,390 10,230 -1.54% -160 190
Wyoming (1) 940 1,040 10.64% 100 30
—– —– —– —– —– —–
TOTALS 765,460 815,630 6.55% 50,170 19,470
USA AVERAGE (199) 759,200 857,700 12.97% 98,500 24,040
***Difference*** -6,260 42,070 48,330 4,570

I include the “Difference” at the bottom to alert readers to the fact that while the 2008 employment numbers largely correspond between the states and the BLS (which I suspect excludes Puerto Rico), the 2018 employment projections simply do not line up. The federal government predicts 5.2% more employed attorneys than the states do, as well as a much faster growth rate. I’ll bet there’s a state government or two in there that’s not counting self-employed attorneys. If not, let’s hope the BLS is right and state governments aren’t because that’s 45,700 more graduates who will never see the inside of the legal profession.

Legal Profession 1994-2008: 103,200 lawyer jobs for 561,220 ABA grads

“That the current employment rate is not lower [than 88.3%] is further evidence of the resilience and remarkably steady employment market for U.S. law school graduates, even in times of relative economic weakness.” – Selected Findings for the Class of 2009 (NALP)

Reading statements like these, Annie Lowery’s Slate article attributing the law school application drop to the scambloggers and the improving economy, and the Public Interest Institute’s study led me to ponder what government data have to say about overall employment for lawyers. Assuming every ABA law school graduate wants to become an attorney, i.e. highly discounting the “versatile juris doctor” argument, things have been very bad for law students for a long time. True, some people do pursue legal educations for non-attorney career tracks and others pursue second degrees and enter other fields, but this assumption must hold true if law schools are to be taken seriously at all. I culled Bureau of Labor Statistics attorney employment numbers courtesy of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. Apparently, for at least as long as the Internet has existed, the BLS has been banging the lawyer oversupply gong.

Let’s compare employed attorneys to ABA law school graduate output. I don’t have replacement data for this time period.

While the lines match up somewhat in the early 2000s, the growth in employed attorneys is insufficient to absorb all the graduates. To better illustrate, let’s compare net lawyer job growth to ABA graduate output.

The green line shows the required imputed lawyer attrition rate if we were to employ every graduate. Now, we know not all graduates get jobs (and how), we also know attorneys leave the field voluntarily or otherwise (including recent graduates counted earlier), so the imputed attrition rate is an idealistic calculation. Additionally, unfortunately for this dataset, 2001 and 2003 were bullish hiring years for the profession and the BLS gathers data on even numbered years. Oh well, not my problem. We also know that the quality of jobs has been decreasing: more contract work, deferred start dates, and growth in new solo practitioners trying to make a go of things.

Here’s the table:

YEAR: Employed Lawyers Net Growth ABA Grads Required Attrition
1994 656,000 N/A N/A N/A
~1996 622,000 -34,000 78,981 -112,981
~1998 681,000 59,000 80,034 -21,034
~2000 681,000 0 78,526 -78,526
~2002 695,000 14,000 76,066 -62,066
~2004 735,000 40,000 77,479 -37,479
~2006 761,000 26,000 82,696 -56,696
~2008 759,200 -1,800 87,438 -89,238
Totals: 15.73% 103,200 561,220 -458,020

In sum, the economy added a paltry 103,200 lawyer jobs (barely one percent annual growth) for 561,220 graduates between 1994 and 2008. That’s 5.44 graduates per lawyer position over that time period, sadly excluding the replacement rate. In 2009 and 2010, a total of 87,592 people graduated from an ABA law school, and at the 2010 going forward (44,004), between 2008 and 2018 there will be 439,624 new ABA law graduates to compete for 240,400 lawyer jobs, a rate of 1.83 graduates per job. For an apples-to-apples comparison, it’ll be 439,624 graduates to a net of 98,500 jobs, or 4.46:1, which is better than what we’ve had in the past. Because the system is still growing, the actual ratio will increase. If we want a 1:1 applicant to job ratio, enrollments will have to be reduced by more than 55% as of 2008, and that says nothing graduates from non-ABA law schools. The BLS assumes the economy will be at full employment by 2018, so thankfully we can omit underemployed lawyers.

ABA Awakens?

Which leads me to the ABA Standards Review Committee’s Consumer Information Subcommittee’s proposed change to law school employment disclosure requirements.

Anyone who’s read the chart on page 4 will undoubtedly agree it’s a step-up from today’s law school advertising. Transparency advocates must be licking their lips. My complaints are (a) it idealistically assumes everyone who’s employed has had only one job nine months after graduation, and (b) like all transparency initiatives, it is subject to the whim of the “nine months after graduation” standard, which the ABA collects in place of “employed at graduation” because many employers won’t hire people until they’ve passed a bar exam. Law schools, NALP, and transparentists can’t tell us what will happen to graduates two or more years from graduation, even though it’s critical information applicants need. The data I’ve gathered here are the best proxy we have.

If the standard is adopted, expect law schools to lean hard on the bottleneck and versatile JD arguments, convincing applicants that they’ll be employed in the future because the economy is improving just for them. They’ll essentially sell out recent graduates, but law schools will say that students take on the market risk and that they aren’t responsible for the economy, which is true. However, it’s safe to say that if scambloggers can convince people not to go, the law schools’ own shocking employment data will do quite a bit of damage to their own credibility. 0Ls’ reasonableness will be put to the test, though I personally believe many people will still go to law school out of perceived financial desperation. I doubt transparency will be sufficient to save the legal education system.

Adoption of the ABA proposal is also a subtle moral test of the transparency movement, which I’ve felt has been opaque about the lawyer oversupply problem. I hope transparency advocates (to say nothing of the incredible NALP) aren’t surprised at the results that logically follow from what the government has been saying since I was in middle school: A long-term career as a lawyer is a fantasy for the majority of law students and for the federal government that unquestioningly finances the legal education system.

Legal Sector 2018: 500,000 Law Grads vs. 100,000 Lawyer Jobs


[UPDATE: Through more recent research, I discovered that the BLS does calculate job growth due to replacement needs, projecting that 141,900 lawyers will retire or pass away. Adding that to the net growth figure cited below gives us a total of 240,400 lawyer job openings between 2008 and 2018. Read the Law Graduate Overproduction page for more information.]

Introduction: Harvard Says We Need More Lawyers

Recently, the ABA teamed up with Indiana-Bloomington Professor Bill Henderson to produce a chart of attorney salaries county-by-county. Now, I’m the type who’s wont to read blog comments (and here readers give the ABA a good whoopin’), and one attorney going by the moniker, Joel, said he crunched some of the numbers of attorneys in the U.S. based on 2009 BLS data on his own blog, Legally Sociable, where goes by Sagescape. Now, I use the 2008 data because it includes self-employed lawyers (partners and solos) and it predicts future attorney employment (very bad, more on that below), but I appreciate a more recent number. Sagescape directs us to Harvard’s “Analysis of the Legal Profession and Law Firms,” where we read the following:

The ratio of lawyers/jobs was flat for most of the 20th century and then rose dramatically after 1970, roughly doubling between 1970 and 2000. That increase (of 100% over 35 years) is similar to increases in the share of service and knowledge-based jobs in the US economy since 1970. (Wyatt and Hecker 2007)

The growth of lawyers is constrained by the output of US law schools. [!!]

The number of law schools has grown, but more slowly than the ratio of lawyers/jobs.  In 2007, there were 196 ABA-accredited law schools, compared to 144 in 1970, an increase of 36% (ABA).

The number of law school graduates has grown, faster than the number of law schools, but again, more slowly than the ratio of lawyers/jobs.  There were roughly 44,000 graduates of accredited law schools in 2005, compared to 30,000 in 1975 and 36,000 graduates in 198 [sic], an increase of roughly 50% over 30 years (ABA).  (Numbers for the early 1970s were depressed by Vietnam.)

Wow Harvard, the sting of your lash! Who thought universities were cruelly denying the public affordable legal services by declining to open more law schools!

Harvard bases its research on Wyatt and Hecker, who give us a similar analysis, though in their defense they use data going to 2000.

Lawyers and judges increased one-and-a-half times as a proportion of total employment between 1910 and 2000, with almost all growth coming since 1970. (See chart 5…) Between 1910 and 1970, lawyers and judges grew from 0.29 percent to 0.35 percent of employment (reaching a peak of 0.36 percent in 1940), after which they jumped to 0.71 percent by 2000. Employment grew from 112,000 in 1910 to 272,000 in 1970 and 927,000 in 2000. Stiff licensing requirements (for both individuals and law schools) and other restrictions on supply limited growth through 1970, but as these restrictions weakened or disappeared, the number of law graduates grew. At the same time, demand for lawyers increased, as many more laws were enacted, business activities became more complex, and society became more litigious. Civil rights legislation for minorities, women, and older and disabled persons; laws regarding the environment, employer-employee relations, product safety, and consumer protection; and higher crime and divorce rates all contributed to the growth of lawyers and judges. Several Supreme Court decisions expanded the right to a court-appointed counsel for criminal defendants, which in turn led to increased funds for public-defenders’ offices and a sharp increase in the number of court-appointed defense attorneys. [Page 43]

Here’s Wyatt and Hecker’s “Chart 5”:

So I guess law jobs are growing faster than society is making new lawyers. Well folks, that’s it for the Law School Tuition Bubble. I suppose I’ll just blog about music (I’m still listening to the Softies; help me stop!) or just post my crazy doodles on the Internet.

What’s that you say? My dozen or so consistent readers want a pro forma challenge? A rear-guard action, if you will?

Fine, but only because I like you.

Legal Sector Reality

Intuition tells me to return to Amir Efrati’s 2007 Wall Street Journal article, “Hard Case: Market Wanes for Lawyers.” Efrati’s article is better than David Segal’s 2011 NYT piece because he does more empirical research. This graphic always entrances me, like dangling string in front of a housecat:

A slack in demand appears to be part of the problem. The legal sector, after more than tripling in inflation-adjusted growth between 1970 and 1987, has grown at an average annual inflation-adjusted rate of 1.2% since 1988, or less than half as fast as the broader economy, according to Commerce Department data.

A while back, I tried to find the Commerce Department data Efrati refers to and couldn’t, but after my recent ABA→Legally SociableHarvardWyatt and Hecker sojourn, I did. I don’t know where Efrati gets the 1970 numbers, but I can get the 1977 to 2009 ones and I’ve adjusted everything to inflation using 2005 chained indexes.

Here’s the legal sector’s nominal size in billions of dollars:

As my favorite BigLaw partner, Phil Ken Sebben would say, “Rising profits, enlarging revenue, lots of good firm growth, we’re turgid with cash!”

Are we? Not quite. Here’s the size of the legal sector relative to the economy:

Wait a minute. Efrati’s “tripling” between 1970 and 1987 isn’t even that descriptive. Things were flat from 1977 until 1981, and after 1992, the legal sector’s proportion of the economy fluctuates between 1.44% and 1.55% of the U.S. economy. That’s certainly not the impression Wyatt and Hecker give us.

Let’s expand, update, animate, and interpret from Efrati:

DUUUUUUUUUDE. It would appear the legal sector of 2009 is no larger than it was in 2000, and in the twenty years between 1989 and 2009, the legal sector grew just under ten percent.

This is a very, very different story from the one Harvard told us. Taste the whip Harvard, now bleeeeeeed fo~~r me~.

Let’s say there was fantastic growth from the 1970s to the late 1980s. Obviously it wasn’t continuous. The legal sector went into a deep intra-economic recession during Paul Volcker’s infamous years at the Fed. In 1983 though, fantastic growth resumed. From 1983 to 1990, what I call, “Seven Years of Plenty,” the legal services sector grew at an annualized rate of 5.29% from 58.265 to 83.591 (original). Much of that occurred in 1988 when the sector saw a tremendous 13% surge. Savings & Loan litigation perhaps?

Even though the legal sector resumed growth along with our recent bubbles, the growth rates between the two tell us that the legal sector didn’t really keep up with the economy.

What’s going on here?

Two things happened in “Seven Years of Stagnation.” One, while the rest of the economy grew, the legal sector fell into recession twice. Two, the legal sector stopped growing past 1.44% of the economy. Efrati called this a “slack in demand,” but I see it as something else: Maturity, which the Economic Glossary defines as:

The third stage in the product life cycle, characterized by flattening of sales and decreasing profit margins. Advertising and promotion are used to maintain market share and to prevent the erosion of sales and profits. During this stage, the initial decline of a product begins and many businesses try to “re-invent” their products to prevent the upcoming decline stage. Many times the company finds new uses for an existing product (baking soda as a deodorizer), totally new markets (foreign countries), or a way to enhance the existing product to make it better and to re-start the life cycle. The television has gone through at least two life cycles, first from black and white to color and then from color to high definition (HD) and plasma. Along the way there were enhancements such as remote control, VCRs to complement them, and cable to help with reception.

Unlike some products (VCRs), legal services will always be in demand, but 1.2%-1.5% of the economy is the most it will ever get because legal services are an intermediate good: they’re a catalyst for economic activity and never an engine for growth. The best firms can do is increase advertising, to the extent they’re allowed, and I think this includes an even greater emphasis on credentials. This is something else Bill Henderson writes about. Once the pond stops growing the issue turns to how its resources are distributed. For law firms, demand for those who are perceived to be the very best attorneys increases. I suspect this also explains the birth of the bi-modal starting salary distribution, which also occurred at the time, but BigLaw is not my bailiwick, so read Steve Harper and Jerry Kowalski as a supplement. I recall Stephen Bainbridge coming to this conclusion.

Ironically, the fact that the number of law students per capita declined during the 1990s actually mitigated some of this, though the 2000’s growth towards the 1980 record doesn’t help.

Maturity also implies that legal education’s then tolerable inefficiencies hit a wall, and normally market forces would’ve required adaptation. The financing system and accreditation monopoly prevents that, and we can see the rising tuition as a result of increased competition for high quality students. Perhaps maturity even explains the prevalence of the U.S. News rankings.


Another thing that happens in this stage of the product cycle is a shift from providing new services to increasing productivity in existing ones. Fewer inputs for the same output saves money, attracting clients. For example, I redirect you to the recent coverage on the development of super-effective document review software. What caught my eye there was this line:

[The five CBS studios sued by the Justice Department] examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million (~$7.4 million in 2011), much of it to pay for a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates. But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000.

6.7¢ per document versus $1.23 per document. Which would your client rather pay?

One could argue that with cheaper discovery litigation will come into greater vogue, especially between small plaintiffs against large entities, but any technological advancements will likely reduce the legal sector’s size within the economy and it certainly won’t employ all the lawyers it offsets.

Conclusion: Law Graduates Dashed Upon the Rocks

In fact, we’re not going to need nearly as many lawyers as our law schools are producing. The smoking gun, which sadly was under my nose all this time, is in the erstwhile 2008 BLS data, which linked to a PDF projecting job growth for lawyers. Between 2008 and 2018 net lawyer job growth will be…98,500.

Of this, 50,300 will be legal sector employees (non-equity attorneys); 29,400 will be in government, and a whopping 9,800 will be self-employed, i.e. partners and solos. Obviously we’re talking about net job growth, so we must account for retirees, advancers (e.g. judges, legislators, presidents and governors, law professors (which will decline at some point regardless of what the BLS thinks), etc.), walk-aways, lay-offs, failed practices, and ousted partners. Nevertheless, given that the ABA-accredited law schools produce 44,000 juris doctors per year, to say nothing of the roughly forty non-ABA schools, it should be clear that no sector of the economy will gainfully absorb half a million new lawyers by 2018.

It looks like the LSTB will continue its traditional programming.