How Many Lawyers?

March 20th, 2015 / By

A few years ago, I used employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to project the number of job openings for licensed lawyers during the current decade. At the time, BLS was the best available source for that type of projection; it remains a useful resource today. The BLS makes these predictions precisely to help workers, employers, and policymakers understand the likely demand for workers in particular occupations.

Why should law schools care about these predictions? As Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre show in two recent papers, a JD historically has conferred financial advantage (compared to entering the workforce with just a BA) even if graduates did not work as practicing lawyers. If law graduates reap financial returns from their degrees, regardless of the jobs they take, does it matter how many jobs they find as practicing lawyers?

Some scholars (including me) wonder whether financial returns to a law degree will remain as high as they have been. But let’s leave that debate aside for now. Let’s consider, instead, why law schools should care about the number of grads who will find jobs as licensed lawyers–and what that number might be.

Who Cares?

Law graduates, students, and prospective students seem to care. Several sources indicates that, although some graduates enjoy work that does not require bar admission, graduates overall prefer to practice law. Every year, for example, NALP publishes a table showing how many graduates are employed but still seeking work. These tables consistently show that grads in jobs that require bar admission are far less likely than other grads to be seeking new jobs. In 2010, for example, just 15.1% of the graduates in “bar required” work were seeking other employment, while 48.1% of those in “JD preferred” jobs and 49.0% of grads in “other professional positions” were doing so. [Sorry, source not available online]

Similar preferences emerge later in the career. The After the JD longitudinal study found that law grads working in non-lawyering jobs were less satisfied than those in lawyering positions. The distinction held both seven and twelve years after law school graduation. [No online link for that one either, I’m afraid, but check p. 70 of the AJD II and AJD III reports.]

If graduates care, I suspect that students and prospective students care as well. And if only out of self interest, law schools should care too. We can tell students that a law degree offers many options, and that historically those options have paid off financially compared to a BA alone, but the current crop of students isn’t buying that pitch. If they want to practice law, they’re still coming to law school. But if they’re looking for intellectual stimulation, a degree with diverse options, or other benefits, they seem to be going elsewhere.

This is partly why I think law schools should examine the way we package the education we offer. We’re good at teaching close reading, careful writing, and critical thinking–and we could teach those skills to undergraduates. Talented undergrads want those skills, and employers will pay a premium for them. At the same time, we’re good (and could be better) at teaching advanced legal doctrine and other intellectual skills essential for law practice. We can keep providing that education to a more focused group of JD students who primarily will become lawyers.

So How Many Lawyers?

This brings me back to the question I started with: If prospective law students care about whether they will get jobs as licensed attorneys, and if law schools should care about that question (if only to attract students), about how many law graduates are able to get jobs that require bar admission?

My recent study of law graduates in the State of Ohio gave me some numbers to work with. I tracked job outcomes for all 1,214 new lawyers who passed the Ohio bar exam in 2010. In December 2014, about 75% of them held jobs that required a law license. Most of the rest were employed, but in other types of work.

My population included only licensed lawyers, not law graduates who didn’t take or pass a bar exam. One thing we know about the latter group is that they can’t be practicing law. So, after performing some calculations to account for that group, I estimated that about two-thirds of 2010 graduates were practicing law four and a half years after graduation.

Will the same percentage hold for graduates from other years and in other states? I don’t know; we often have to deal with limited data and isolated points of reference in making real-world plans. I explain in the paper why I think Ohio offers a useful perspective, and why I think the annual number of new bar-required jobs will remain stable in coming years. I’ll write more about both of those issues here soon.

The Good News

The good news for both law schools and prospective students is that my estimate is higher than the BLS’s historic projections. I estimate that, four and a half years after graduation, about 29,250 members of the Class of 2010 are practicing law. Some of the jobs are dubious solo practices; some undoubtedly are part-time, temporary, and/or low paid. Some of them are jobs that a graduate secured only after failing and re-taking the bar exam. Prospective students need to take those factors into account, not simply consider whether they’ll be able to find a job practicing law.

When all is said and done, though, graduates are finding more “lawyering” jobs than BLS once predicted–although not as many as BLS predicts through a proposed revision to its forecasting method. I’ll comment on the latter in another post.

The other piece of good news is that, if my calculations are correct, and if law school attrition rates remain constant, then about 84.5% of the current 1L class will find lawyering jobs within a few years after graduation. That level of job placement may be sufficiently attractive to maintain enrollment at current rates.

The Bad News

I couched that last sentence carefully: “to maintain enrollment at current rates.” Better placement in lawyering jobs will reassure prospective law students, but I doubt it will draw them back to law school in droves. Law schools, meanwhile, will need to worry about bar passage rates as they enroll students with lower credentials. Declining bar passage rates will discourage potential applicants both directly and indirectly, as they depress the percentage of graduates working in jobs that require bar passage.

Schools will also vary in the percentage of graduates they place in jobs requiring bar admission. Some will place more than 85% in those positions; others will place much less. If I’m right that potential students care about getting jobs that require a law license, enrollment declines will continue at the latter schools.

Summing Up

In making predictions, both here and in my paper, I offer some very specific numbers. I do that to offer a point of reference for debate; I can’t say exactly how many members of the Class of 2017 will find lawyering jobs, or how many students will apply to law school in 2018. I do think, though, that JD students care about their odds of securing a job that requires a law license and that law schools need to account for that preference. To do that, it helps to know as much as we can about operation of the legal market.


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