Every two years the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes state-level employment projections on its affiliated Web site projectionscentral.com. The data from this site include estimates of the number of lawyer positions (not people who are lawyers) out there in 2016, a prediction of how many there will be by 2026 (assuming full employment), and the projected number of annual lawyer job openings.
In past years this topic was one of my favorites because I could compare the number of lawyer job openings to the numbers of law-school graduates (via the ABA) and new bar admits (via the NCBEX). However, because the BLS changed its methodology for calculating occupational replacement rates a few years ago, this is no longer possible. Instead, I can show the ten-year replacement rate for lawyers by state, but first here are the basic numbers compared to those from the previous cycle two years ago.
|STATE/BEA REGION||NO. EMPLOYED LAWYERS||LAWYER EMPLOYMENT PROJECTIONS||ANNUAL LAWYER GROWTH RATE|
|2014||2016||% CHANGE||2024||2026||% CHANGE||2024||2026||% CHANGE|
|District of Columbia||38,920||39,360||1.1%||41,480||41,770||0.7%||830||1,920||N/A|
|STATES (EXCL. P.R.)||774,940||777,640||0.3%||854,470||857,480||0.4%||19,410||40,240||N/A|
|U.S.A. (EXCL. P.R.)||778,700||792,500||1.8%||822,500||857,500||4.3%||15,770||40,700||N/A|
(Note: Only Texas did not report its numbers this year, which is lamentable because it’s a large state. West Virginia did not report two years ago. For the purposes of the regional estimates, wherever there were gaps, I used Texas’ 2014 numbers for this year and omitted West Virginia entirely.)
Superficially, one can tell that the data are erratic. It’s unlikely that half of Idaho’s lawyers disappeared in two years, and there are other wide swings like Maryland and Kentucky. The BEA regional numbers look steadier though.
On to the specifics. You can clearly see that the annual job growth numbers are much higher for 2016, but that’s because of the methodology change, not anything to do with the legal labor market. Presumably, had the new methodology been used in the past, the numbers would have been quite higher. Even as it is, unfortunately, the new methodology gives the misleading impression that the legal profession is capable of absorbing significant numbers of law-school graduates and new lawyers. Indeed, the class of 2017 only had about 34,500 persons, and nearly 42,000 people were admitted by examination or diploma privilege. Certainly this should indicate a healthy employment situation for law graduates, right?
The question isn’t simply whether grads get jobs, but what kind of jobs they are and how long they keep them. Moreover, lawyer positions that open by replacement won’t necessarily be filled by new lawyers. So, here’s a table depicting the projected annual number of new lawyer jobs created each year until 2026, the number created by replacement, and an estimate of the ten-year replacement rate.
|STATE||Annual New Lawyer Jobs||Annual Replacement Lawyer Jobs||10-Year Lawyer Replacement Rate|
|District of Columbia||256||241||574||1,679||42.7%|
|U.S.A. (EXCL. P.R.)||4,380||6,500||11,390||34,200||43.2%|
(Note: States that predict declines in lawyer counts do not have replacement rates. Also, the U.S.A. totals at the bottom are not the sums of the individual jurisdictions of them.)
The one ray of hope here is the faster rate of new lawyer job growth nationwide. The BLS appears to be predicting it’ll accelerate at about 50 percent. However, most jobs are created by replacement, not growth. Thus, we have a set of ten-year replacement rates that are consistently above 40 percent, which astonishes me, but is still consistent with the national data from last year. I question whether the methodology is producing reliable results. Perhaps law practice is too small an occupation to accurately measure, unlike retail salespeople. Although, it’s necessary to bear in mind that not all lawyer jobs are created equal and some may turnover multiple times in a decade.
Meanwhile, I checked the numbers again, and occupations such as “Dentists, General” and “Physicians and Surgeons, All Other” have ten-year replacement rates below 30 percent. “Paralegals and Legal Assistants” have a staggering ten-year replacement rate of 120 percent.
So yes, the projections don’t inspire me with confidence, but they’re the best, neutral evidence we have about the long-term viability of a law career. If they gave a contrary result (and other evidence backed it up), then I’d arrive at a different conclusion. But today is not that day, so I stand by my opinion that law schools cannot credibly represent good outcomes for their prospective and current students.