Monday, April 2, 2012
Recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics provide more evidence that the legal job market for graduates will be extremely difficult for the next several years. The data come from the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is updated annually. Below is a BLS bar chart* comparing growth in lawyer jobs versus other legal sector jobs versus the economy as a whole:
According to the BLS, there were 728,200 lawyer jobs in the U.S. in 2010. By 2020, that number will grow to 801,800, producing a gain of 73,600. Currently, law schools average approximately 45,000 graduates per year, albeit entering classes have been trending upwards. The BLS Handbook states:
[G]rowth in demand for lawyers will be constrained as businesses increasingly use large accounting firms and paralegals to do some of the same tasks that lawyers do. For example, accounting firms may provide employee-benefit counseling, process documents, or handle various other services that law firms previously handled. ...
Competition [for lawyer jobs] should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available. ...
The public debate often talks about the surplus of lawyers as if the hand of a regulator could or should turn down the spigot on entry level lawyers. Yet, no such spigot exists. Overproduction is primarily a function of optimism and the availability of federal loans. Over the medium to longer term, I see three possible ways -- all mutually compatible -- to unwind lawyer overproduction:
- The Dept of Education looks at the proportion of law students on Income-Based Repayment, reads the BLS projections, and in turn curtails federal funding for law student loans;
- The new ABA transparency criteria sends some schools into a "death spiral", see NY Times story on falling law school applications; or
- Law schools focus on making their degrees more versatile and valuable so graduates become more competitive for professional jobs outside traditional legal services (traditional legal services has its own structural issues at the moment).
#3 is the only factor in the control of law faculty, albeit it calls for something radical -- change in what we do and how we do it. Call me crazy, but I think #3 is actually a huge opportunity for a law school with the right leadership and the right mix of faculty. I am currently in the process of sketching out a blueprint anyone will be free to use or make fun of.
* The chart splices together BLS lawyers and paralegals/legal assistants. It is interesting to note that nonlawyers jobs are projected to grow nearly twice as fast as lawyers. I doubt this trend would be obvious to those of us in the academy; the magnitude of the difference surprised me, though it makes sense. According to the BLS, paralegals only make $46,700 per year -- much cheaper than a junior lawyer and no expectations of a promotion.
[posted by Bill Henderson]