I wrote earlier this week about employment trends for doctors and lawyers. There is a third occupation that now vies with these professions for the affections of talented college graduates: software developer. Examining this occupation explains where some might-have-been lawyers are headed.
What Is a Software Developer?
Software developers, who are also called software engineers, are not programmers. They have a deep understanding of code, and know how to program, but that is not their primary focus. Instead, developers design the programs that give us so much delight–and occasional frustration. The developers also test programs to try to forestall that frustration and, when glitches happen, work with the programmers to fix the errant program.
Once you understand the nature of software development, you can see it’s attractions for students who might also consider law school. Software developers use their intellects, solve puzzles, and help people. They know more math than the typical lawyer, but their work focuses on logic and strategy rather than equations.
Add in these facts: It’s pretty cool to develop “apps,” many software companies are hip places to work, and you could become famous (and very rich) creating the next big program.
How Many Jobs Are There?
By 1978, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recognized a category of “computer specialists,” but just two occupations (computer programmers and computer systems analysts) comprised the category. Neither was identical to the current job of software developer, but each included some components of that work.
Although computers still played a relatively small role in our lives, the economy already supported 389,000 computer specialists in 1978. For comparison, there were only 380,000 lawyers practicing that year. The computer age had already begun.
By 2006, the number of computer specialists had grown more than eight-fold to 3,200,000. That category included computer and information scientists, programmers, software engineers, systems analysts, and many others. Notably, the category of software engineers alone had grown to 857,000 workers.
In contrast, there were only 761,000 lawyers and 633,000 doctors practicing in 2006. The number of software developers already exceeded the number of workers in each of these traditional occupations–and that was during the supposed boom years of our profession.
The recession shook the legal profession, cutting the jobs available for practicing lawyers. Software development, however, proved even more recession-proof than medicine. The number of software developers reached 913,100 by 2010 and 1,114,000 by 2014.
By the latter year (the most recent year for which data are available in this series), the number of software developers far outstripped the number of lawyers working in the United States. In fact, the number of software developers (1,114,000) was 40% larger than the number of lawyers (778,700). Both of those figures include self-employed workers along with salaried ones.
The software development industry, moreover, is still growing rapidly. BLS predicts that employers will add 186,600 new jobs for software developers between 2014 and 2014–compared to just 43,800 for lawyers and 99,300 for doctors. That’s right: The number of new jobs for software developers will grow more than four times faster than the number of new jobs for lawyers–and almost three times faster than new jobs for doctors.
If you’re a bright college freshman who likes to solve intellectual puzzles and help people, there are a lot more opportunities in software development than in law or medicine.
What Does It Pay?
Doctors and surgeons routinely top pay scales in the United States. In the latest tally of occupational earnings (which includes only salaried workers), medical specialists hold the top nine spots when occupations are ranked by median annual income. Even general practitioners, who rank ninth, receive a median salary of $184,390 per year. Chief executives follow the nine medical specialties, with a median salary of $175,110.
Salaried lawyers still fare well, with median annual pay of $115,820, but they have fallen to twenty-seventh in this ranking. Software developers don’t follow too far behind. Developers of systems software rank thirty-sixth with a median salary of $105,570, while “app” developers rank forty-ninth with a median of $98,260.
The extra money earned by the median lawyer is nothing to sneeze at, but those salaries for software developers are plenty attractive. As a bonus for risk-adverse students, the downside is more favorable in software development than law. At the tenth percentile, salaried lawyers make just $55,870 per year. Tenth percentile software developers take home $57,340 (for applications) or $64,600 (for systems).
And did I mention that software development requires just a four-year college degree?
Legal educators often note that a law degree opens many paths beyond law practice. It certainly is true that some lawyers pivot from law to business, politics, nonprofit management, and other careers. I suspect, however, that the same will prove true for software developers.
For starters, I haven’t yet mentioned Computer and Information Systems Managers. Those workers oversee all computer-related activities in an organization. There were 348,500 of these managers in 2014, and the BLS expects the number to rise to 402,200 by 2024. At the median, these managers earn considerably more than lawyers: $131,600 in 2015 compared to $115,820 for lawyers.
Software developers also cultivate skills that will serve them well in other business and management positions. Developers are adept at identifying client needs, problem solving, working with teams, managing projects, and bridging the communications gap between technicians and non-technicians. It’s hard to imagine a more valuable set of skills in today’s workplace.
The most talented students often seek work that is meaningful as well as remunerative. During the late twentieth century, many of us chose law school because we thought we could make a difference through the legal system. Most of us have done just that. Even if we didn’t champion new legislation, represent the indigent, or set new judicial precedents, we helped individuals and businesses solve challenging problems.
Today, the same can be said for software development. Software has the potential to ease almost every human activity. High school students know this first-hand through the apps they use in school and their personal lives. Good apps help drivers avoid traffic jams, update parents on their child’s school progress, customize music preferences, and perform countless other tasks.
Even for students who care about the legal system, software development offers appealing solutions. Jimoh Ovbiagele, who cofounded the firm that developed the ROSS software, was 10 years old when his parents separated. His mother, Ovbiagele says, suffered because she could not afford a good divorce lawyer. He views artificial legal intelligence as a way to bridge that justice gap.
There is a good chance that software developers will be the popular heroes of the next few decades. Lawyers will still have a place, but on a lower rung of the cultural ladder. As legal educators, we need to understand the careers that now compete with law for the enthusiasm of college students.
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