In my last Am Law Daily article, I discovered that contrary to all expectations, the quantity of private legal services provided per hour worked has stagnated for more than two decades. I think this is one of the most important insights I’ve come across, and I think the macroeconomic data on the legal sector is greatly undervalued in commentary on the future of law and law school. The lack of productivity increases certainly deserves a bit more discussion than I gave it in the article.
So, were lawyers (okay, legal sector workers, but I may use the term interchangeably) more efficient when they used paper reporters than LexisNexis?
Unlikely. I think there are other things going on here.
One, (private) legal services aren’t homogeneous outputs. An hour spent on a criminal defense matter isn’t the same as an hour spent on a landlord-tenant dispute or a corporate merger. It’s possible that many lawyers (and firms) have become more productive over the years, but the composition of the average hour of legal services Americans are buying has changed.
All this observation does, though, is raise the question of how the average hour has changed, and there isn’t much direct evidence on the subject. There are some indirect data. For example, American Bar Foundation (PDF) statistics show that since 1980, large firms have crowded-out smaller ones, though curiously solo practitioners are about as abundant as they ever were.
In 1980, only 7 percent of all private practice lawyers worked in a firm larger than 50 lawyers; in 2005, 20 percent did. But this doesn’t show much because in most circumstances we expect larger firms to be more efficient than smaller ones, so they’d cost less per client. On the other hand, Bill Henderson tells us that the employment composition of biglaw has changed since the 1980s as well, which I think can support the idea that the average hour of legal services has changed.
We also know that in general legal services have become more expensive over the years, even as the number of employed lawyers has grown. Legal services cost twice as much on average in 2011 as they did in 1985 in real terms.
(Source: BEA, author’s calculations)
So how do you square the circle of more lawyers yet costlier legal services? In two ways: First, you can argue that demand for legal services is wealth and income elastic, i.e. the more money one has, the more they like spending it on lawyers and they buy different kinds of legal services too. And wouldn’t you know it, just this morning The National Law Journal reported that $1,000 per hour billable rates for “in-demand partners at the most prestigious firms” aren’t rare anymore. Second, you can argue that as Americans’ incomes and wealth decline, they’re unable to purchase the legal services that they used to, and the lawyers who formerly served them either move to a higher-priced market or go out of business.
The only alternative you’re left with is that there’s an attorney shortage, and all those “excess” law school graduates are really just lazy, greedy, entitled, and unwilling to make the tough sacrifices like abandoning their current lives and moving to rural America to serve the poor. However, this argument requires throwing out rational behavior assumptions and leads us to wonder why the supposedly efficient large firms won’t serve the poor if the greedy grads will not. The “market failure” line is ever wanting for an explanation.
If the composition of the average hour of legal services hasn’t changed, then the only way I can think of where we get the same (or less) output for the same effort despite technological advances and rising prices is by systemic fraud and cartelized behavior on a spectacular scale. Lawyers lie in lockstep about the cost of their services. Then they work fewer hours a week and take Fridays off. New lawyers attempting to enter the market, work more, and charge lower prices face threats and sabotage.
I’m sure plenty of people believe the above is true, but there’s scant evidence of it.
So we have stagnant legal sector labor productivity. I think it reflects wealth concentration rather than fraud.
Incidentally, clever observers might wonder how much it matters. Maybe increases in overall labor productivity have a long way to go to catch up to the legal sector’s, an observation that didn’t make the cut in my Am Law Daily piece. Indeed, most productivity gains over the last few decades have not gone to workers. Here’s a different measure, output per worker (instead of per hour, which is more precise).
(Source: BEA, author’s calculations)
By this measure, the legal sector has become 13.5 percent less productive between 2009 and 2011. This could mean that either all lawyers who didn’t lose their jobs in the Lesser Depression organized a work slowdown, or the Lesser Depression laid-off the most productive legal sector workers. In a variant of the latter, some practice areas might be more productive than others—especially those benefitting poorer clients and not the wealthy—and once poor people become destitute, an otherwise productive chunk of the legal sector goes out of business. Regardless, there may be significant deadweight workers in the legal sector.
What does this mean for the as-yet unmentioned prospective law student? As I wrote in the article, law will only consistently pay off for those who can serve the wealthy, at least in the short term. Also, as the largest purchaser of law graduates’ labor, the legal sector sets their wages. If legal sector productivity has stagnated while other sectors become more productive, there are probably better long-term opportunities than law.
A crucial independent variable here is how long the depression will last. Given the dismal December 2013 Establishment Survey figures (and the Obama administration’s shameful spinning of them), things are bad. Here’s the employment-population ratio for 16 to 54 year-olds and my projection of them based on the positive growth since September 2011.
If the legal sector is sensitive to employment levels and wealth concentration, then it’s going to be a long while until law starts paying off consistently from the demand side. From the supply side, obviously, there are far fewer people going to law school, and I’m hopeful (yes!) that the median graduate in a few years will have less law school debt than in previous years. It’s also obvious that the trivial accounting identity holds true: The first person who doesn’t go to law school is the first not to be unemployed after graduating. The real questions are (a) whether the demand-side factors really are as bad as I think they are, and (b) whether some law schools’ reputations are so insubstantial that legal employers would rather hire an unemployed graduate from a better-regarded school.