- The actual Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)'s projections for lawyer growth show a need for about 20,000 new lawyers a year including projected retirements - if the BLS doesn't believe an impending wave of Boomer retirement will hit American justice, why should you?
- Since we're still pumping out way, way more than that, it's still a bad time to go to law school
- There are multiple BLS programs. Figure out which one your author is referring to, and the pitfalls of using such numbers.
- Claims of lawyer employment/unemployment based on the CPS program of the BLS/Census Bureau have to be taken with a bucketful of salt
It's slightly old now, but a few weeks back, Thomas Cooley's President Don Leduc made an astonishing announcement:
According to a just-released U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the number of employed lawyers in 2014 increased by 40,000 compared to 2013, while the number of unemployed lawyers fell by 8,000.If you look at the pretty graph accompanying this fine piece, with its bombastically stellar closing paragraph, it clearly shows consistent lawyer employment rates over 97.7% with a maximum unemployment of 24,000 between 2008 and 2014. A footnote to the table states this:
The time of the law school critics has passed. Now is the time for those whose dream is to become a lawyer to disregard the blog-fog and look at the clear employment picture that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has painted. That dream’s future is now.
Wait a minute - if it's a "just-released...report," where are these numbers coming in the chart coming from, particularly if something had to be obtained from the BLS by request?
I've looked around for a recent BLS report about lawyer unemployment, and am unable to find anything. So let's walk through this one step at a time.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics ("BLS") has multiple programs that often get thrown together in casual discussion. For a helpful starting point, you can look at Leichter's page on lawyer overproduction. He knows more of this stuff than I do, so feel free to hassle him with any questions.
The CPS: What Leduc Referenced
The Current Population Survey ("CPS") - what they reference in the footnote - is a joint effort between the BLS and the Census bureau. It's conducted via a monthly survey of 60,000 people and its methodology can be reviewed here. You can review the questions asked here.
This is where Cooley is getting the "employed lawyers" numbers in their chart. The number of employed lawyers in the annual 2014 report (1,132,000) is, in fact a 40,000 person increase from the 2013 report (1,092,000).
But this needs to be taken with heavy salt:
- If a lawyer is employed in anything else (including severe underemployment like working retail), they show up under that profession, and not as a "lawyer" at all.
- CPS counts someone as employed if they worked at any point in the previous week, including having a lousy week in part-time solo practice.
- CPS (and other government surveys) are generally biased against counting people as unemployed, and one is apparently "unemployed" based on their last occupation, and not any particular occupation they trained for.
- Another helpful CPS chart shows that "lawyer" has a median age of 47.0 - higher than most computer professions, engineering professions, and - yes - physicians and surgeons. For a profession that pumps out 45k a year and ostensibly employs 30k or so new entrants every year, how can this be, unless there is a disproportional departure from the ranks of those under 45?
- CPS never asks its respondents if they have a Juris Doctor
- CPS only samples 60,000 a week. That means its sub-sample of lawyers will be around a few hundred or so at the most. At that point, the numbers aren't as precise and celebrating over a 3-4% change isn't as reliable as it might be otherwise.
- None of the unemployment tables published list a number of unemployed lawyers. The most recent tables show a decrease of 10,000 in the legal sector overall. And this shows a sharper drop in unemployment for women than men, which doesn't bode well for 80% of the drop being attorneys.
- CPS is self reported, so if workers go from unemployed/not seeking to part-time solo practitioner, it would show as a rise in attorney employment, as would attorneys whose solo practices are losing money and not paying themselves anything.
- CPS includes part-time employees. Reduced to "full-time", the number is 737,000.
clear employment picture"for prospective students, when the data that they're using isn't designed to measure new lawyer openings at all.
The OES/CES: What Measures Lawyer Jobs
Another BLS measurement, the Occupational Employment Statistics. The OES is a separate survey you can read about here. The OES data is used to generate industry-specific and region-specific estimates for current and future employment. It does not measure unemployment in any meaningful way.
The OES projects 1,052,900 people in the entire legal sector with a 50% median hourly wage of $36.95 (about $75,000). They project there are only 603,310 lawyer jobs in the country. Yes, they estimate fewer jobs in the sector than the CPS shows as employed lawyers.
Why the discrepancy with CPS? OES excludes law firm partners and solo practitioners. Unless you plan on being a solo or insta-partner (hint: you're not that special), this is really the number you need to focus on for determining where lawyer jobs are actually going, not the CPS. The fact that there is no attendant unemployment number suggests that one should not be relying solely on any single BLS statistic.
There is also the Current Employment Statistics, which is a separate survey targeted to calculating aggregate employment and payroll, and is useful in their Projections programs.
Employment Projections: What Actually Projects Jobs
The BLS uses the numbers from OES and CES (and possibly other programs) to develop its industry-specific projections in the Employment Projections Program. You can read its methodology here; pay attention to the part where they do not use CPS data. As you can see, the BLS is currently projecting an overall growth of 132,000 or so in the entire legal sector between 2012 and 2022. When we break it down further by occupation, we find the BLS currently projecting overall lawyer growth of 74,000 positions with an overall 196,000 job openings due to growth and replacement needs over the ten-year period from 2012 to 2022. If you read the accompanying technical documentation, you will see that the second number is the first plus projected replacement needs based on workers leaving the occupation, which is derived from CES survey data about payroll. This is actual survey data that should be a fact-based stake in the hearts of the "Baby Boomers are leaving!" argument.
From this, we know that the BLS is estimating that there will be 74,000 "new" lawyer jobs over the next ten years and 122,000 "replacement" job openings. Each year, that means that there are 7,400 "new" lawyer jobs and 12,200 "replacement" job openings. This doesn't count retiring solo attorneys or law partners leaving, but the number of new "lawyer" jobs would already factor in if new "lawyer" jobs were being created by their departures.
How many new lawyers do we need each year? About 20,000, according to the BLS. I'd concede we likely want to graduate a few thousand more than that to accommodate legitimate JD-plus jobs and account for washout, but taken as a whole and in context, the BLS numbers can only fairly support the assertion that we're pumping out way too many lawyers, probably to the tune of 15,000 at least.
And as Matt Leichter points out on his "overproduction" page linked above:
If you look carefully, you can see that the projections tend to overestimate the number of lawyer jobs that eventually exist ten years later.Yet, Leduc is telling prospective students the future is now, while still playing a part in pumping out 40,000 or so new lawyer job candidates every single year.
So . . . who's creating "blog-fog" again, and who's being clear?