Medicine and law are highly regarded professions; talented students used to eagerly seek entry to both of these fields. But now applications to law schools are falling while those to medical schools are rising. What’s behind that phenomenon? Let’s take a look at employment trends in these two professions over the last forty years.
The Roaring Eighties
In 1978, our economy supported a modest number of doctors and lawyers. Notably, we employed significantly more doctors than lawyers during that year. There were about 447,000 physicians practicing in the United States in 1978, but just 380,000 lawyers.*
A lot changed over the next decade. As the Baby Boom reached maturity, the number of physicians grew aggressively–rising 19.7% to reach 535,000 doctors in 1988. The growth of lawyering jobs, however, far exceeded that pace; lawyering positions grew 53.2% over the same decade. By 1988, there were more lawyers (582,000) than doctors. Our profession added a whopping 20,200 jobs per year to the economy, compared to just 8,800 new jobs per year for doctors.
Many of today’s leading lawyers and legal educators obtained their degrees during the 1980’s. Our memories of that era fuel the notion that demand for legal services is virtually unlimited. If the number of practicing lawyers could grow so rapidly during one decade, why wouldn’t that demand continue? Alas, it did not.
The Modest Nineties
The 1990’s were a disappointing decade for both doctors and lawyers. The economy added just 99,000 new lawyering jobs between 1988 and 1998–less than half the number added during the previous decade. Growth for physicians was even slower, reaching just 577,000 jobs by 1998.
The weakened demand for lawyers was apparent in NALP’s entry-level hiring reports from the 1980’s and 90’s. Between 1985 and 1990, the earliest years for which data are readily available, at least 81.6% of each graduating class held full-time “legal” jobs within nine months of receiving a JD. In 1988, that percentage reached a high of 84.5%.
After 1990, however, the percentage turned sharply downward. Only 76.1% of the Class of 1991 secured full-time legal work within nine months of graduation. The percentage fell as low as 69.6% in 1994, and it did not push higher than 77.3% by 2000.
These depressed hiring rates would not have surprised anyone knowledgeable about employment trends in the legal industry. The industry was adding less than 10,000 new lawyering jobs a year while law schools were graduating more than 39,000 new lawyers each year. For graduates who hoped to practice law, the market was already saturated.
Information, however, traveled more slowly during the 1990’s. Neither NALP nor law schools displayed these statistics on their websites; none of us had websites during the 1990’s.
The New Century
During the first years of the twenty-first century, the legal profession maintained the same modest growth rate of the 1990’s. Between 1998 and 2006, the economy continued to add just 10,000 lawyering jobs a year. We look back at that era as a boom time for lawyers, but the fireworks were limited to the largest law firms. Overall, the profession continued to grow quite modestly.
Employment figures for new graduates reflect that modest growth. From 2001 through 2007, the percentage of JD grads securing jobs requiring bar admission fluctuated from 73.2% to 76.9%. The “high” of 2007 fell well below the placement rates of the 1980’s.
Our profession’s early-century “boom” was in the number of law school graduates and the tuition they paid–not in the jobs available to graduates. Entry-level hiring merely kept pace with expanding class size, extending the modest hiring percentages of the 1990’s, while overall growth remained modest as well.
Growth rates for doctors were similarly slow. Between 1998 and 2006, the number of physicians rose from 577,000 to 633,000. That’s a growth rate of about 7,000 new positions a year. The early twenty-first century was a time of continued growth for professional positions, but it was not a boom era for either doctors or lawyers.
Recession and Recovery
The Great Recession, as we know, hit the legal profession hard. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of lawyering jobs plunged from 759,200 to 728,200, a loss of 31,000 jobs in just two years. Growth resumed after 2010, with the number of employed lawyers reaching 778,700 in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available). But between 2008 and 2014, the annual growth rate for lawyers averaged just 3,250 new jobs per year. No wonder the market for new lawyers is still saturated.
Doctors did not experience the same fall-off. The number of doctors grew steadily from 661,400 in 2008 to 708,300 in 2014. That’s a growth rate of 7,800 new jobs per year. Medicine, not law, proved to be the recession-proof profession. Indeed, the medical profession added more jobs per year after 2008 than it had in the previous two decades.
It’s not hard to imagine why. The population is aging, which creates more demand for medical care. Medical discoveries bring even more patients into the system; those patients often require both initial treatment and long-term care. And even before passage of the Affordable Care Act, many patients benefited from health insurance. Legal insurance, in contrast, is rare.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that recent trends will continue over the next decade. The Bureau estimates that the economy will generate 99,300 new jobs for doctors between 2014 and 2024, but just 43,800 for lawyers. The medical profession will add even more new jobs each year (9,930) than it did in the 1980’s (8,800). The number of new lawyering jobs, in contrast, will sink to just 4,380 positions per year. That’s less than a quarter of the positions added annually during the 1980’s and not much higher than the average number of jobs added between 2008 and 2014.
In part, the changing fortunes of law and medicine follow demographic trends. In 2024, the youngest Baby Boomers will celebrate their 60th birthdays; the oldest members of that generation will be nearing 80. Our divorces, child custody disputes, and criminal charges will be in the past. We’ll either have estate plans or we won’t. Even if we don’t yet have wills, we’ll probably spend our limited income on medical care rather legal papers.
Businesses and individuals will still need legal assistance in 2024; the profession will continue to grow rather than stagnate. But the rate of growth will be far, far smaller than many legal educators imagine. The 1980’s were an unusual decade for our profession. It was a time of great expansion, fed by surges in both college graduates and legal regulation. Since that boom era, growth has diminished decade by decade.
Comparing law to medicine highlights the nature of that decline. During the 1980’s the legal profession grew far more rapidly than the medical one. Many more college graduates found jobs as lawyers than as doctors. Today, the situation has reversed. Talented students can choose between a profession (law) predicted to add 4,380 new jobs per year and one (medicine) projected to add more than twice as many–9,930.
* The employment figures cited in this post derive from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) program on Employment Projections. Before making those projections, the Bureau estimates the number of existing jobs within each occupation. Those estimates, notably, use several surveys and other sources to include both salaried and self-employed workers.
Reported jobs for “doctors” or “physicians” refer only to positions held by medical school graduates; the BLS counts dentists, podiatrists, and other health care professionals in separate categories.
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