Friday, April 10, 2015

Lies, Damned Lies, and Employment Statistics: Blog-Fog About BLS Lawyer Employment Numbers

This is a longer post, so I'll give you the main takeaways up front:
  • 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
40,000 New Lawyer Jobs!  Rad!

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.
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.
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:
BLS Current Population Survey - Table 3. Employed and experienced unemployed persons by detailed occupation and class of worker, Annual Average for each year 2008-2014 (unpublished, obtained from BLS by request)
Wait a minute - if it's a "," 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.
If anyone can find detailed CPS unemployment numbers online, please let me know.  One must assume it's the "experienced unemployed persons" information that Cooley got directly from the BLS, as I don't see that denominator listed in the online tables (I may just be missing something).

Still, given what we know about what the CPS measures, it's not really proper for Cooley to claim that the BLS is painting a "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?


  1. Thank you for this, LSTC. For those of us (all of us) that have to hold down real jobs that take more than 6-9 hours a week of facetime, freeing us up to pursue whatever academic subject catches our fancy for the remainder, this is a very helpful summary of how BLS statistics are calulated. The information we try to obtain is hard-fought volunteerism and comes in-between the times we're trying to makes ends actually, y'know, meet, and we're certainly not getting any grants in the process.

    Obviously for the SacmDeans, it's "too much work" to be honest, so just ramble off some numbers without any clarifiers. As we all know, honesty tends to hurt the bottom line in any event.

  2. After seeing LeDuc’s preposterous comment, I took a quick look at Cooley’s numbers on Law School Transparency and its 509 Report. Things are worse than I imagined. Here are a few gems:

    - 22.9% employment score.
    - 1,583 entering 1L’s in 2010, 445 entering 1L’s in 2014.
    - 51% bar passage rate (2013) for first time takers in all jurisdictions. And the actual pass rate is probably much worse since only 71% reported their result.

    How is it that the ABA continues to accredit this place? How is it that LeDuc isn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit?

    1. Consider the case of Cooley - 23% obtain FT/LT lawyer jobs, but only 51% are even eligible to obtain those jobs, because the rest fail the bar exam!

      Student quality is getting so low at bottom tier dumps that a small but statistically significant number of students are failing the MPRE before they even taken the bar exam. There is probably another small but significant group that realizes they are very unlikely to pass the bar exam, thus they never attempt it. For those two reasons, the number of students who graduate but fail to obtain licensure is probably significantly understated.

    2. Meanwhile, if a medical school were to have less than 85% of its graduates matching for a residency (which is starting to happen at some places), you have outright panic.

      Here (at toilets like Cooley) you can have 23% FT/LT lawyer jobs and 51% bar passage, and it's business as usual. Nobody at the school or the ABA or any of the local judiciary seem to notice, nor do they particularly care.

    3. Is it true that professors are petitioning for bar exam to include a new "coloring" portion, in which aspiring lawyers use crayons to fill in pictures?

      And will law school grads will be examined on their proficiency with paste, glitter, and popsicle sticks?

  3. Now that we are entering the presidential campaign season, someone needs to make the higher education scam (of which the law school scam is merely the most egregious offending party) a major issue. All Americans have a stake in this, not just current and former students, because everyone's tax money is being used to fund this scam. The average taxpayer needs to know that their taxes are being funneled to people like LeDuc by way of sub-mediocre students who will never pass the bar and will probably default on their loans, essentially making the tuition they paid to the law school a gift from the taxpayers to the scammers. Right now, only a small subset of the populations really understands what's going on. If more people knew about it, there would be a massive call to end this grotesque taxpayer-funded subsidization of worthless diploma mills.

    1. Is there a good synopsis post somewhere that we can send to a sitting Senator/Rep's office? If so, can the commentariat suggest whom, maybe one who has a JD herself?

    2. Best comment ever. So true, and it's sad that no one in the national media is reporting on how awful legal education has become in America.

  4. Here's my projection: take what's happened for the last 8 years and expect, at best, that the situation continues unchanged in perpetuity.

    The Legal Services Sector lost 70,000 through the end of 2009 and did not add them back. The Sector has been flat since those losses, which means new entrants are only finding jobs if others are leaving the profession. It's only replacement rate and no growth.

    Are lawyers retiring or are some fleeing the profession because it cannot pay them enough to live?

    When law deans speak about future employment prospects they speak as if the most recent graduating class is the only applicant pool for vacancies that exist around the time these students graduate.

    They never speak about what happened to those tens of thousands of new J.D.'s who did not find a legal job within 9 months of graduating.

    Add up the surplus, and now you're talking about hundreds of thousands of J.D.'s floating around in an industry that, inclusive of all non-lawyer positions, has never seen more than a few thousand increase in employment per year, and frequently is down a few thousand jobs year-over-year.

    The obsession with projecting job gains is just a distraction from the present, worst employment crisis the profession has ever seen. Even at the level of the BLS, it is tainted with ulterior motive.

    Bottom line: students are taking a risk concerning the job market three and half years hence. That risk can never be eliminated. In an environment where the hottest industry in country - shale oil - turned boom-to-bust in under 6 months, where higher education is in a bubble and popping, where Congress periodically skirmishes over debt ceiling increases without which the USA herself would default, where the stock market is bizarrely inflated, where underfunded liabilities for Boomers just starting to become eligible are counted in the tens of trillions, where record numbers of countries have collapsed economically and politically, and where wars are everywhere, No One should take a risk where the upside is highly unlikely and the downside is catastrophic, guaranteed to destroy your financial existence for life.

    It is simply insane to put yourself in a position where only the very best economic circumstances will be sufficient for the 'investment' to turn out okay for you in the near-term. Law deans are simply trying to have their near-term turn out okay for them, so they lure people to their destruction.

  5. Let's ask LeDuc a few choice questions:

    Why is it that 77% of your graduates last year have not found jobs in law?

    What exactly are those people doing?

    How much are they paid?

    How much are the payments on the debt that they incurred in order to attend Cooley?

    What about the 23% that did report having jobs in law? How are they faring?

    Old Guy

    1. Even if it were a good time to attend law school (its not) it would still not be a good time to attend Cooley. It will never never ever be a good time to attend Cooley.

  6. Cooley number of more than 1 million lawyers comes from the BLS Current Population Survey. This is a household questionnaire responded to by one person in the household for the whole household. It is not thought to be very reliable for this reason.

    This is the number of households in which the head of household identifies a household member as a lawyer. This does not mean the lawyer is earning much. In fact only 760,000 of these lawyers are actually working as lawyers according to BLS estimates.

    In fact, the Household Survey excludes income of self-employed persons from their questions. This really skews upward the incomes. With more than a quarter of a million solo lawyers whose median income is probably very low omitted from salary numbers, the salaries of lawyers from the BLS are totally unreliable.

  7. Practice-ready professionals for tomorrow will provide constitutional protections for disadvantaged groups unable and unwilling to finance the delivery of legal services in a climate of emerging environmental challenges and shifting gender roles. Future lawyers require training in Law and Billy Joel Studies in order to transformationally assume roles as global leaders meeting the 21st century's unseen need for additional legal professionals. Fortunately recent legal educational graduates are motivated to work without compensation in underserved areas with unprivileged, unwashed, uncashed, and underdressed clients from diverse backgrounds. Ultimately as questions of law & rap music increasingly arise in modern legal education, and as law school graduates despair of finding work, law schools must focus on enhancing cirricula that build lawyers' abilities to engage in slam poetry before judges who will be forced to overcome ethnocentric expectations for non-rhyming legal discourse as postmodern lawyers translate law into rhythm and rap extemporaneously while backup lawyers beatbox. As music and even dancing assume greater importance in today's courtrooms, the greatest challenge for legal education is how law learners can transfer more and more borrowed funds to their legal instructors, who will increasingly teach law as slam poetry for students to transgressively convey multiplicities of meaning as they rap before a stunned Supreme Court and earn million-dollar JD premiums.

  8. Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 10% from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The competition is really tough as many students graduate from law than the jobs available for them. Well it was great to read this article.