Legal Sector

Good News: Legal Services Industry Grew 2.0 Percent in 2015

Since I started writing here more than six years ago, it’s always been bad news for the legal services industry. Dwindling output, year in, year out. This time, no longer. We have growth: 2.0 percent in 2015.

gdp-and-legal-services-industry-value-added-1000s-chained-2009

(Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA))

And yes, thanks to an alert reader I can now show the BEA’s complete GDP-by-industry dataset going back to 1963! We can now see that if the legal services industry had maintained its mid-20th century growth rate it would be nearly double its current size. Imagine how much better law practice would be. You might think there’d be a need for more law schools to meet the demand.

Arguably, the government’s definition of the industry or its composition has changed over the decades as it has for other industries, but I doubt it. It’s mostly lawyers’ offices. Undeniably, though, the typical product of the legal services industry has changed. I’d bet that the weighted-average hour of legal work is very different now than in 1975. Even so, it’s still possible to give a dollar figure of how much stuff private practice lawyers are producing.

…And it ain’t much. The legal services industry produced less in 2015 than in 2012, 1995, and 1988. There’s room for a lot of growth. The sector peaked in 2008, and since then it’s shrunk more than 20 percent.

The other caveat is that the legal services industry’s growth this year is mostly attributable to the gross operating surplus (what goes to firm owners, partners, solos) as opposed to employee compensation, which better indicates budding demand for new lawyers. The breakdown is: gross operating surplus, +1.5 percent; taxes on production and imports, +0.5 percent; and compensation of employees, +0.0 percent.

Yeah. You read that right. 0.

However, compensation has shaved off growth since 2007, so maybe a zero year isn’t so bad. Here’s the chart of the industry’s components, which still only goes back to 1987:

components-of-legal-services-industry-real-value-added

Compensation of employees in the legal services industry peaked in 2003 at $121 billion (2009 $). Now it’s $97 billion, a similar 20 percent decline.

Finally, although the legal services sector did well in 2015, the rest of the economy did better: GDP grew 2.6 percent, of which 1.9 percent went to compensation of employees. Things still look better for non-law.

Finally, legal services as a share of household expenditures grew for the first time in thirteen years.

legal-services-share-of-household-consumption-expenditures

At its maximum, households spent $99.5 billion on lawyers in 2003. Now it’s $87.9 billion, down 11.7 percent.

I’ve written elsewhere that the legal services sector can’t shrink forever into nothing. It’s like estimates of the year Japan’s population reaches zero. So we were bound to have some good years. What we need is evidence of sustained growth, especially in employee compensation. Instead, that’s not going anywhere, but at least it’s not falling anymore.

Class of 2015 NALP Data: The Mid-Law Crunch

A few weeks ago, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) published the national summary report for its Employment Report and Salary Survey (ERSS) (pdf). Unlike last year, the chart lists the total number of graduates and the number who reported employment information, and the NALP updated its ERSS national summary chart for the class of 2014 to include that as well. I chided the NALP for omitting these last year, but that’s not a problem now. Good.

My goal today is to quickly glance at the ERSS for information the NALP might not have reported or missed, and to add to the time-series displays of graduate employment outcomes I provided last year. The NALP’s data are far easier to work with than the ABA’s when it comes to longitudinal trends, so this is where to get it. Nevertheless, I don’t have much to say.

The NALP’s selected findings (pdf) focused on the number of graduates finding private practice jobs, the lowest since 1996. There were undoubtedly fewer than 40,000 graduates that year, so compared to 39,984 this year, this is understandable. What is new, as I discussed in May, is that even though the number of graduates fell, the proportion of them finding better work didn’t improve. Large percentages are still working in “JD-advantage” jobs and nearly 11 percent reported being unemployed. This is not what a law-graduate recovery would look like.

percent-employed-by-status-nalp

no-grads-employed-by-status-nalp

Last year, at least, there was some rise in the proportion of employed grads. This year nothing’s changed. Blame all the grads who failed the bar, I guess.

As for the kinds of jobs grads are getting, I’m seeing a mid-law crunch since 2007 that I don’t believe the NALP has discussed.

no-graduates-employed-by-size-of-firm-nalp

cumulative-percent-change-in-grads-employed-in-law-firm-jobs-by-firm-size-index-2007100-nalp

(Sorry this one’s a little unclear.)

In fact, hiring at firms with 51-250 lawyers shrank the most since 2007, more than 30 percent in each category. Smaller firms have grown—but are now shrinking—and the biggest firms are making a comeback.

I’m not a biglawologist, nor a midlawologist, but if the big firms aren’t annexing the middle ones, then this is a chunk of the profession that’s shrinking. Looking at the After the JD II data, which I know is dated, middle-sized practices tended to have low outflow rates compared to other practice areas. Aside from government work, maybe these were among the best long-term jobs one could get out of law school?

No Libertarians, the ABA Does Not Control The Supply of Lawyers

Writing for Forbes, University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson explains to us “Why Lawyer Salaries Are Skyrocketing.” Although he attributes most of the cause of the big-law salary hike to the libertarian red-tape boogeyman, Henderson opens the article with long-falsified supply-side reasoning.

On the supply side, the American Bar Association operates a state-approved cartel, which uses a licensing regime to artificially limit the supply of legal services. In a recent white paper, the White House came out against occupational licensing in general, and breaking the ABA cartel would be a good first step in addressing the staggering growth in lawyer pay.

The last time I recall encountering the “ABA attorney shortage” claim in any depth was two years ago when Michael Lind on Salon told us that that the ABA controls the supply of lawyers. Henderson’s argument though more predictably libertarian is nevertheless surprising because only a month ago The New York Times explored law-graduate underemployment in depth. The natural question is, how can Henderson discuss an attorney shortage while graduates a state away from him struggle to find work at far less pay?

In recent years bar-passage rates have played a role in graduate underemployment to some extent, but not all of the 5,004 unemployed or unsurveyed class of 2015 graduates failed the bar. Another 5,400 graduates were in JD-advantage jobs, which frequently includes positions that could be filled with people with less education. These graduates should be pushing lawyer pay down, and this is prior to any discussion of whether big law salaries should track inflation.

Then of course, there’s the fact that payroll lawyers’ incomes have been flat for quite a while.

10th to 90th Percentile Dispersion of Annualized OES Lawyer Incomes

From a business perspective, law firms could also take the same amount of money and substitute more new associates for the same (or less) pay to cover demand for their services. That is, if demand for their services is really an issue.

Then of course, there’s the ABA’s accrediting power, which a Department of Education panel threatened with a one-year suspension not because it’s refusing to accredit more law schools but because it’s accrediting law schools with insufficient regard to graduates’ employment outcomes.

Cleary other forces are responsible for the ~$20,000 big-law pay raise. I insist I’m not a biglawologist and other voices such as Steven Harper are vastly more credible than I am on the subject, but anyone who thinks ABA rules are choking lawyer supply doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to regulatory boogeymen either.

CLASS OF 2015 EMPLOYMENT REPORT

[UPDATE: As with last year, it appears the ABA took down the employment spreadsheet by late Friday afternoon, making this post … an exclusive. There may be substantial revisions to come.]

At last, something to write about! (And time to do it too!)

On Friday, the ABA updated its Employment Summary Report Web site, which provides employment data for each law school class going back to 2010. Many if not all law schools have uploaded their individual reports, and some intrepid researchers have already dug into them, but I prefer to wait until the easy-to-use spreadsheet comes out. Note: There may be revisions to these data, but this first, preliminary cut gives a good sense of the class of 2015’s employment outcomes. Also, I diligently account for all accredited law schools, so researchers should recognize that Concordia Law School must be inserted manually. Indiana Tech has no data.

39,423 people graduated from 204 ABA-accredited law schools outside of Puerto Rico roughly between September 1, 2014, and August 31, 2015. The employment information is good as of about March 15, 2016.

Here’s the employment status distribution.

Class of 2015 Employment Status Distribution

Surprisingly, many of the employment status categories’ percentages are identical to last year, even though the absolute numbers have fallen. I almost thought I was looking at the 2014 data by mistake. Notably, the employment status tables added a section for “Employed – Law School/University Funded” jobs. It’s probable that a good chunk of these jobs were classified as “JD Advantage” until now, further clouding the validity of that category.

The display tables appear below the fold to conserve blog space.

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Wage-and-Salary Lawyer Employment Slows in 2015, Incomes Flat

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 2015 are now available, allowing a comprehensive summary of lawyer employment for the 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 2015 grew 2.5 percent to 1,160,000. The employment projections program (EP program) placed the number of lawyer positions at 778,700 in 2014. The discrepancy between these two measures has existed for a long time and has yet to be explained. Although the CPS is considered more reliable, the EP program estimate is appropriate for discussing future lawyer employment. The CPS measures the number of people in an occupation, but the EP program estimates the number of positions in that occupation, including people holding multiple jobs. Both measures include part-time lawyers and self-employed lawyers in all industries.

The CPS also estimated 803,000 people working as lawyers on a wage or salary basis, an implausible 9.0 percent growth from the previous year (+66,000 lawyers). By contrast, the more accurate Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program found that the number of wage-and-salary lawyers grew by 1.1 percent last year to 609,930. The number of employee lawyers in the legal sector grew only a negligible 0.4 percent to 380,180.

Lawyer Employment by BLS Measure

Employee lawyers’ incomes were flat in 2015. The OES estimated a scant 0.6 percent median hourly wage growth, although the CPS registered a 4.2 percent median weekly wage increase. Going by the OES, the last peak for lawyers’ earnings was 2009; incomes are about $10,000 lower in real dollars since then. Here is an annualized dispersion.

 

10th to 90th Percentile Dispersion of Annualized OES Lawyer IncomesThese lawyer employment 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 are instead advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes for insight.

A Simple Equation: Huge Debts + IBR = -(-(Default))

Simple, that is, for everyone but the letter-writers responding to the NYT editorial from two Sundays previous.

The objective of today’s outing isn’t to defend the Times as such but rather to draw attention to the sad rebuttals to it.

Argument #1: Law students are less likely to default on their student loans than undergrads.

Law students borrow more than undergrads, but most are able to repay, and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.

[O]nly about 1.1 percent of alumni at Florida Coastal are in default.

[D]ata shows that law school graduates have lower default rates than other professional degree holders.

Response: It is true that the Times accused law schools of, “sticking taxpayers with the tab for their [students’] loan defaults,” but the line between “default” and “certain IBR/PAYE/REPAYE/PSLF loan cancelation” is hazy. Arithmetic tells us that with $130,000 of debt at current student loan interest rates, law-school debtors earning about $70,000 from day one cannot even dent their student loans’ principal. Because it’s unlikely these debtors will ever find high-paying jobs, it’s all but certain that large portions of their loans will be canceled.

It may not be default, but it’s only “repayment” in the technical sense. Better to call it “not-not-default.”

Argument #2: Thanks to scrupulous admissions practices, law school enrollments have declined.

Many law schools are downsizing to maintain standards. Since 2010, first-year enrollment has dropped from 52,500 to 37,900, a level last seen in 1973.

Since 2010, law schools have responded to the changed legal job market by dramatically cutting first-year enrollment by 28 percent.

Response: This is the most astonishing bit of revisionist law-school history I’ve seen. Remember five years ago (!) when Richard Matasar cited record law-school enrollments as evidence that applicants understood their job prospects? Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! Only 53,500 people applied to law school in 2015, down from 87,900 in 2010, and there’s evidence that fewer people applied in 2010 than the number of LSAT takers would’ve predicted. Law school admissions policies are not responsible for prospective applicants’ decision not to go to law school.

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(Sources: LSAC, ABA)

Also, law schools are admitting higher proportions of their applicants since 2010.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

(Source: Official Guide, author’s calculations)

Argument #3: Declining interest in law school will [create a disastrous attorney shortage/equalize supply and demand for lawyers].

[Due to falling enrollments] the rule of law may begin to fray. Our country needs lawyers, prosecutors, defenders and judges, not only lawyers in big cities and big law firms.

[A] law degree continues to be a sound investment over the course of a career. … [Falling enrollments] will bring supply more into line with demand.

Response: I lump these arguments together because they entail the same prediction: Job outcomes and wages for law grads will improve in the near future. Testing this belief with NALP data, it’s clear that law grads are much more likely to find themselves in J.D.-advantage jobs than in the past. If the job market for lawyers tightens, we’ll see graduates shift from these jobs to lawyer jobs. Instead, while the number of unemployed grads fell in 2014, so did the number of grads in 2-10-lawyer firm jobs. Meanwhile J.D.-advantage jobs rose. This doesn’t speak highly to the value of law school.

No. Grads Employed by Status (Incl. FT-PT) (NALP)

Additionally, based on various measures, including those provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are hundreds of thousands more law grads than there are lawyers. Many of these people left law voluntarily, e.g. they didn’t like law practice or they moved on to post-law professional careers (like the judiciary). Alternatively, they didn’t have opportunities for careers at the bar at all. As more lawyer jobs open up, presumably many of these people would come out of the woodwork. However, there are few indicators that demand for lawyers—which is what really matters here—is improving. Moreover, graduates reporting full-time, long-term employment might not stay in the law for long due to the profession’s high attrition rate.

Also, one letter-writer asserted that a law degree is “a sound investment” and that declining enrollments will “bring supply more into line with demand.” These statements contradict each other, albeit mildly. Although it’s possible the 5,000 class of 2013 graduates who were reported as unemployed will embark on professional careers in the future, it can’t be to their advantage if they graduated when supply was higher than demand could absorb.

Argument #4: Capping federal loans restricts the profession to the wealthy.

Capping graduate federal loans as the editors suggest would fall hardest on students from modest circumstances who will not be able to attend law school or will need to resort to private loans, which are typically more expensive, and repayment is not income-contingent.

[C]utting federal loans will only narrow the pool of people who can pursue a legal career and decrease the availability of lawyers to serve this need.

Response: Even with unlimited federal loans the legal profession isn’t accessible to the poor, but supposing these consequences are true, state governments could just make it easier for people to become lawyers, e.g. by reducing law to an undergraduate major. We have had lawyers without law schools—good ones even, and we’ve had bad lawyers with law schools.

Argument #5:

[T]aking loan money from law students is both bad economics and bad policy.

Response: No evidence is given to support these claims, but the existence of not-not-defaults discussed above disproves them. Also, we had lawyers with fewer loans to law students and dischargeability for private loans. This isn’t the distant past; it’s pre-2005.

Argument #6: Florida Coastal School of Law’s graduates rocked the February bar exam.

In February 2015 we had a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate, third best out of 11 law schools in the state, and an institutional ultimate pass rate of 87 percent.

Response: Fewer people typically sit for the February bar exam than the July one, so we have a sample problem. Also, don’t let FCSL’s 509 report fool you: Its graduates may pass the Florida bar at about a 75 percent rate, but at least 30 percent of its students don’t report at all. Florida State’s non-report rate is about 15 percent; U of Florida’s is less than 10 percent. Both of those schools have higher pass rates too.

Paul Campos addressed some of the other arguments by Florida Coastal’s dean.

Argument #7: The editorial ignores improvements to legal education, like more clinical courses.

[Law schools have] sharpened academic programs to provide the training employers seek.

In recent years, many law schools have been overhauling their programs to provide more hands-on skills training. Clinics cost more than big lectures, but they prepare lawyers for practice and teach them about their professional responsibility to serve people unable to pay for services.

Response:

Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs (except for the trainers).

The one letter I’ll call out specifically is New York City Bar Association president Debra L. Raskin’s because … it leveled a coherent argument.

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I’ll not exhaustively nitpick everything here, but by focusing on law school debt the Times editorial is bringing out the kinds of arguments we can expect to see from academics defending the subsidies that ultimately flow to them. Some of the points I read here are novel, so it’s not an opportunity to waste.