In June 2011 both the legal and mainstream media covered Economic Modeling Specialists, Inc.’s release of a table showing the attorney surplus in each of the country’s 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico for 2009. I’d posted a near-identical analysis on my blog three months earlier after comparing the number of graduates from ABA-accredited law schools to the number of lawyer jobs created by growth and replacement in each state in 2009.
While the results of the two analyses were similar, EMSI and I had different purposes in producing them. My goal was only to calculate the surplus of ABA law school graduates over lawyer job openings because my research tends to focus more on the value of legal education and excessive student loan debt, which makes non-ABA and foreign law school graduates less relevant to me. EMSI, on the other hand, was more interested in the lawyer surplus itself.
I’d like to think I did a better job achieving my goal than EMSI did accomplishing what it set out to do. For example, EMSI originally found that both Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. did not suffer from attorney surpluses, but it failed to account for a couple of critical facts: Graduates of Wisconsin’s two law schools can petition the bar without taking Wisconsin’s bar exam thanks to the state’s diploma privilege rule. (As a Marquette grad, I know this from personal experience.) Washington, D.C., for its part, licenses a large percentage of its new lawyers by motion thanks to its generous rules. EMSI also calculated the annual number of lawyer jobs with its proprietary short-term measure of future job openings—a five-year period—while I used the ten-year projections provided by state governments. As a result, the annual lawyer job growth rate EMSI arrived at for some states was as much as 20 percent higher than the state government calculations, which led it to report lower law graduate and lawyer surpluses than I’d found.
Two years later, most state governments have updated both their lawyer employment estimates for 2020 and their projected annual lawyer job growth rate for the period spanning 2010 to 2020, so it’s possible to gauge any improvement or deterioration in the annual attorney surplus between the previous 2009 estimate and what is now available for 2011. For purposes of comparison, here are the 2008 and 2010 lawyer counts, the 2018 and 2020 projections, and the annual job growth rates for the periods between 2008 and 2018 and 2010 and 2020. I’ve included totals for each Bureau of Economic Analysis region as well.
|STATE/BEA REGION||No. Employed Lawyers||Lawyer Employment Projections||Annual Lawyer Growth Rate|
|District of Columbia||42,410||41,669||44,180||48,041||970||1,430|
For the 2008 to 2018 period, the BLS estimated that 24,040 new lawyer jobs would open each year, but the combined estimate produced by state governments totaled only 19,470 jobs per year. The 2010 to 2020 projections for both the federal and state governments have now converged to slightly more than 21,000. The net 2,000 annual job increase per year in the combined state government estimate is distributed among the 29 states for which data were available in both years. However, nearly all of that job growth is confined to a handful of locales: D.C. (460), Florida (590), Massachusetts (270), Missouri (220), and New Jersey (210) account for nearly 90 percent of the net increase in projected annual job openings.
Repeating the process I used two years ago to determine the annual surplus of ABA law school graduates to job openings by state can be accomplished by using graduate data from the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to the ABA Law Schools. To build upon EMSI’s approach to finding the annual lawyer surplus, I’ve combined the number of lawyers admitted by examination, motion, and diploma privilege in 2011 based on data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Although there’s certainly some overlap of people being admitted to multiple jurisdictions at the same time, calculating the surplus this way at least includes lawyers admitted on motion, without taking a bar exam, or who graduated from non-ABA and foreign law schools.
|STATE/BEA REGION||No. ABA Law School Graduates||No. Bar Admits||Ratio ABA Grads to Annual Lawyer Jobs||Ratio Bar Admits to Annual Lawyer Jobs|
|District of Columbia||2,129||2,116||4,082||3,164||2.19||1.48||4.21||2.21|
Overall, both the number of ABA graduates and the number of law licenses distributed increased slightly between 2009 and 2011. However, that growth did not offset the decline in the BLS’s lawyer projection, so in 2011 there were more than two ABA law school graduates and three new lawyers for every job opening in the United States. At the same time, as measured by state labor departments, the ABA graduate and lawyer surpluses declined because the cumulative annual job growth rate rose, and they are now nearly identical to the national annual graduate and lawyer surpluses.
For individual states, only Wyoming (0.91) and Nevada (0.98) posted ABA graduate deficits relative to annual job openings, but these states too were swamped with newly admitted lawyers in 2011, 1.40 and 4.17 lawyers per job respectively. Mississippi now posts very high surpluses due to its poor annual jobs outlook (30 jobs per year). Puerto Rico, which I wrote about recently, has at least five attorneys and even more ABA graduates for each new job opening.
I should add that none of these calculations includes underemployed lawyers who wish to return to practice, nor should these attorney surplus calculations be confused with the ratio of applicants per job opening. State government websites also occasionally refer to law as a "high-growth" occupation, but as the attorney surplus demonstrates, high job growth rates can still be dwarfed by the number of people eligible to work in them.
As to the accuracy of the BLS’s national projections, they have almost always proven more optimistic than the reality in the past. Thanks to information found in archived issues of the Monthly Labor Review, here’s an evaluation of past projections.
Since the 1990s, the BLS has usually overstated the estimated number of lawyers that will be employed ten years hence. The only time it made a mistake in the other direction was in 1996, when it predicted there would be 740,000 lawyers in 2006 rather than the actual number, 761,000. Given how badly mismanaged the economy has been over the last 15 years or so, it’s unlikely that any of the bureau’s post-2012 predictions will be met, especially the 845,000 projection currently on the books for 2014.
There is some good news in places like Florida, D.C., and Massachusetts, where the projected number of lawyer job openings rose relative to the number of graduates and lawyers there. That said, with 28 states reporting an increase in the number of lawyers relative to job openings compared to two years ago and downward revisions to the projected number of employed lawyers as of 2020, the situation still looks bad for those interested in entering the profession.
Matt Leichter is a writer and attorney who holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Marquette University. He operates The Law School Tuition Bubble, which archives, chronicles, and analyzes the deteriorating American legal education system. It is also a platform for higher education and student debt reform.