Unemployed Lawyers

February 20th, 2013 / By

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that only 1.4% of lawyers were unemployed in 2012. That’s an impressive figure, especially when compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.8%. Some law schools point to our profession’s low unemployment rate as a positive reason to embrace law school. Is that a valid way to use the BLS statistic?

No, the statistic is quite misleading when recited without further context. Here is the information schools need to know–and should convey–if they want to use this statistic. First, the statistic includes only people who held a lawyering job before becoming unemployed. That’s why the BLS titles this data series a measure of “experienced unemployed persons.” The statistic does not include people who have passed the bar and are eager to work as lawyers, but who have not yet held a lawyering job. They may be unemployed, but they’re not unemployed lawyers.

Second, the statistic does not include anyone who worked for a single hour during the survey week. The occupational unemployment rates derive from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which surveys 60,000 households each month. The CPS uses a very liberal definition of “employed.” Anyone who receives pay or profit from at least an hour of work during the week is “employed.” A lawyer who was paid for a single hour of document review during the survey week may be strapped for cash and woefully under-employed, but that person is still an “employed lawyer.”

Third, the statistic does not include lawyers who have been unable to find satisfactory legal work and have taken jobs in other fields. An hour of paid work in any job counts as employment for the CPS. A laid-off law firm associate who takes a retail sales job to pay the bills is an “employed retail salesperson” not an “unemployed lawyer.” Ditto for the laid-off lawyers who have taken jobs as high school teachers, realtors, paralegals, or other workers. Even if these employees want to be lawyers, have the training to be lawyers, and would eagerly leave their jobs for a lawyering position, they don’t count as “unemployed lawyers.”

This point is particularly important because job seekers can work down, but not up, the training scale. A worker with just a high school diploma can’t practice law, but a lawyer can do many of the jobs that the high school graduate performs. Similarly, the lawyer can take many of the positions open to other college grads. This is an important part of the reason why people with advanced degrees have low unemployment rates; they usually can return to occupations that were open to them before obtaining the degree. The advanced degree may have little relevance to their employment, but they are not unemployed.

Finally, the BLS count of “unemployed lawyers” includes only individuals who have actively looked for work during the preceding four weeks. Checking newspaper ads or attending training classes doesn’t count as an active job search. This caveat is important because of the number of unemployed lawyers who become discouraged and leave the workforce entirely.

Women are a barometer of this phenomenon; if paid work is difficult to find, they may choose to care for children or other family members instead of pursuing their profession. Unfortunately for the diversity of our profession, BLS statistics show just this trend among female lawyers. In 2000, women constituted 29.8% of all employed lawyers. By 2003, despite more women graduating from law school (and disproportionately male senior lawyers departing the workforce), only 27.6% of employed lawyers were women. The 2001-03 recession pushed more female lawyers than male ones out of the workplace.

Similarly, both the percentage and absolute number of women lawyers has declined recently. After hitting an all-time high of 34.4% of the profession in 2008, the percentage of female lawyers declined to 31.1% in 2012. More than 100,000 women graduated from law school during the last five years, but there are 19,000 fewer women lawyers today than there were in 2008. I don’t know if those women have moved into other fields or out of the workforce, but they don’t show up as unemployed lawyers in the BLS statistic.

In sum, it is technically true that the unemployment rate for lawyers, according to the BLS, is just 1.4%. But that statistic is likely to give prospective law students and others a distorted view of the legal job market. The bare statistic suggests that 98.6% of people who want to practice law, and who have law licenses, are employed as lawyers. That’s clearly not the case. In fact, the same BLS data series suggests that the number of practicing lawyers declined between 2011 and 2012: There were about 1,085,000 respondents working as lawyers in 2011, but just 1,061,000 in 2012.

There are responsible ways to discuss both positive and negative aspects of the legal job market with prospective students. A responsible approach, however, gives context to statistics; it also includes both positive and negative figures that appear in the same data series.

Note: The BLS does not publish the occupational unemployment statistics on its website; that’s one indicator that the Bureau sees limited utility in these figures. But for those who want to see the data for the last ten years, I have PDF copies of the tables.

  • MacK

    One correction – the BLS also only counts someone as an “unemployed [——-]” based on their last employment. So a lawyer that takes any non-lawyer job will not thereafter count as an lawyer should they become unemployed. Work as a lawyer, then sell real estate for a while – you will be counted as an unemployed realtor nor as an unemployed lawyer. This particular fact explains why there are so many missing lawyers from the 1.5 million or so JD holders out there – once they took a non-law job, unless they were reemployed as a lawyer they ceased to be counted as a lawyer – employed or unemployed.

  • Jack Graves

    One of the saddest things about this whole debate is how much time and effort the academy has spent, and continues to spend, in trying to sell a broken educational product. If we had spent anywhere near as much time and effort trying to fix it, we’d be having a very different discussion today (and a much more positive one).

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