Job Growth

March 26th, 2016 / By

How many lawyering jobs does our economy support? Is that number still growing? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shed light on these questions. Every other year, BLS counts the number of existing “lawyer” jobs as part of its Employment Projections program. This count is particularly useful because, unlike some other BLS reports, it includes both salaried and self employed workers. These biennial counts thus include solo practitioners, law firm partners, and practicing lawyers who earn a salary from any source.

By examining these counts, which are available online since 1978, we can chart growth trends for lawyering jobs. (For a full description of the jobs included in these figures, see the note at the end of this post.)


In 1978, the BLS counted 380,000 “lawyer” jobs in the United States. Over the next ten years, that number ballooned to 582,000, an increase of 53.2%. The economy added 202,000 new lawyering jobs over the decade–or about 20,200 new jobs per year.

This was a golden era of job growth for lawyers. Companies required increasing legal assistance to cope with expanding government regulation. Individuals asserted new rights in courts and legislatures. Families and small businesses could afford legal assistance for their problems. And lawyers still controlled almost all work related to interpretation or application of law.


The following decade saw much slower growth. Between 1994 and 1996, in fact, the number of lawyering jobs fell from 656,000 to 622,000. Growth resumed after 1996, with the number of lawyering positions reaching 681,000 by 1998. Still, that total represented an increase of just 99,000 jobs over the decade, or an average of 9,900 new jobs per year–less than half the growth of the previous decade.

Why did job growth slow, when legal needs undoubtedly continued to expand? Businesses probably started assigning legal work to compliance officers, contract managers, HR directors, and other non-lawyers. Meanwhile, as costs rose and wages stagnated, families devoted more of their financial resources to health care, education, and other necessities. Less money was available to draft wills, contest divorces, or even hire a private lawyer to defend against a criminal charge.

Whatever the reasons behind the 1990s decline in lawyering growth, there is no doubt that it occurred. Few contemporary observers recognized the deceleration, but it is clear in the rearview mirror of BLS data.


Many legal educators think of the early 2000’s as an era of aggressive expansion, when employers were anxious to hire new lawyers. In fact, however, growth remained sluggish–and then dropped with the advent of the Great Recession.

Between 1998 and 2006, the era of supposed expansion, the economy added just 80,000 lawyering jobs–reaching 761,000 positions in 2006. That’s 10,000 new jobs per year, just a shade above the 9,900 jobs added during each year of the previous decade. The largest law firms may have been growing aggressively, but other sectors of the lawyering market were not.

Then the decline began. Between 2006 and 2008, the economy lost 1,800 lawyering jobs (with 759,200 jobs recorded in 2008). The decade stretching from 1998 through 2008, therefore, witnessed an overall increase of just 78,200 lawyering jobs–or 7,820 new jobs per year. That growth rate was even lower than the one recorded in the 1990s.


The next six years were even worse. 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.

Between 2012 and 2014, the most recent period of recovery growth, the economy added 9,450 new lawyering jobs per year. That’s an improvement over the recession years, but it’s hardly a growth boom–especially given the need to retake ground lost during the recession.

How Much Does Growth Matter?

Even without growth, occupations absorb new workers. Older employees retire or move to other occupations; employers then replace those workers with new ones. For lawyers, these replacement needs are an important source of employment. Since 2000, about 26,000 graduates per year have found full-time, permanent lawyering jobs–despite much lower growth rates.

Occupational growth, however, is an important sign of health. Our educational pipeline assumes that occupations will grow, not simply replace existing workers. The BLS data are disturbing, not only because they reveal slowed growth of lawyering jobs, but because they show that the deceleration started twenty-five years ago.

A Peek at the Future

Will job growth remain slow for lawyers? The BLS thinks so: In its latest employment projections, the bureau predicts that lawyering jobs will increase by just 43,800 positions between 2014 and 2024. That translates to just 4,380 new jobs per year. Replacement needs will provide additional job opportunities, but growth will be slow.

Is this true of all highly paid occupations? Are globalization and technology dampening all occupational growth? No, or at least not to the same extent as in law. The BLS predicts that the economy will add 99,300 new jobs for physicians and surgeons before 2024; software developers will enjoy a surge of 186,600 more positions. In a future post, I’ll talk more about these–and other–occupational groups. For now, law schools need to understand that other desirable occupations are growing much faster than the legal profession–and that prospective students undoubtedly understand this fact.

[Note: For the “lawyer” or “lawyering” jobs discussed in this post, I drew all data from the BLS’s occupational classification of “lawyers.” BLS currently defines that group to include individuals who “represent clients in criminal and civil litigation and other legal proceedings, draw up legal documents, or manage or advise clients on legal transactions.” Representative job titles include “Attorney, Corporate Counsel, Public Defender.”

The BLS currently recognizes two other job titles that most legal educators would call “lawyers.” These are “Judicial Law Clerks” and “Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates.” BLS’s treatment of these groups, however, has not been consistent over time; they also include a small number of workers whose numbers have remained relatively stable in recent years. BLS, for example, predicts that the number of judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates will grow by only 200 positions during the current decade; it expects the number of judicial law clerks to fall by 800.





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