Data Spotlight: New Lawyers Glutting the Market (Updated)

Note: Catherine Rampell at the New York Times’ Economix blog highlighted our findings (see here). In light of the feedback we’ve received as well as the comments under Catherine’s post — and ours — we have updated the piece.

For a while now, major media outlets — and a legion of bloggers — have reminded us that the job market for lawyers is lousy. Some law schools, in light of the dimming employment prospects for graduates, have resorted to grade inflation and other methods to, as The New York Times noted, “rescue their students from the tough economic climate — and perhaps more to the point, to protect their own reputations and rankings.”

Just how bad is the job outlook for lawyers? According to our quick analysis, every state but Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Nebraska produced more — in some cases, far more — bar exam passers in 2009 than the estimated yearly openings for lawyers in those states. The same glut holds true when comparing law school grads, via IPEDS from the National Center for Education Statistics, to the same opening estimates. 1 And when you take into account nuances with the D.C. bar and how Wisconsin operates (see more below), there might not be any states with a shortage.

New York has far and away the largest oversupply; 9,787 law grads passed the bar exam there in 2009, more than 10% of the active attorney workforce in the state. 2 EMSI estimates New York will need 2,100 new lawyers annually through 2015, creating a glut of 7,687 per year if the 2009 supply figures hold firm. (The imbalance is less striking with IPEDS completers.)

As is the case in every state, not all of these new grads will practice in New York. But the data still points to a surplus.

On the national level, there were nearly twice as many bar exam passers (53,508) in ’09 than openings (26,239). It should be noted that not all those who pass the bar exam in each state are new graduates. Some law school grads wait several years to take the test. Others take it multiple times before passing (the national pass rate in ’09 was 68%), and some have to take it again if they want to practice in another state. Still, the bar exam data appears to be the best measure of lawyer supply from year to year, with the exception of D.C. and Wisconsin. (We also compiled IPEDS completers by state to see how both datasets match up.)

Here’s the data (including median wages) and supply/demand comparisons for every state that we compiled using EMSI’s Analyst. Note: Use the table’s search function to quickly find any state; national figures are at the bottom.

2010-15 Est. Annual Openings 2009 Bar Exam Passers 2009 Completers (IPEDS) Surplus/Shortage Median Wages
New York 2,100 9,787 4,771 7,687 $56.57
California 3,307 6,258 5,042 2,951 $50.61
New Jersey 844 3,037 787 2,193 $43.84
Illinois 1,394 3,073 2,166 1,679 $51.54
Massachusetts 715 2,165 2,520 1,450 $43.89
Pennsylvania 869 1,943 1,697 1,074 $46.05
Texas 2,155 3,052 2,402 897 $41.55
Florida 2,027 2,782 2,781 755 $36.39
Maryland 560 1,277 548 717 $41.46
Missouri 362 943 908 581 $39.96
Connecticut 316 880 510 564 $43.69
North Carolina 503 1,032 1,053 529 $37.79
Minnesota 378 888 948 510 $43.69
Ohio 686 1,194 1,513 508 $34.69
Georgia 779 1,217 894 438 $46.11
Colorado 547 967 509 420 $40.83
Virginia 956 1,375 1,435 419 $49.34
Louisiana 357 731 810 374 $33.35
Tennessee 389 735 446 346 $37.34
Washington 619 935 678 316 $37.37
Oregon 291 594 519 303 $34.51
Indiana 339 602 825 263 $32.48
South Carolina 262 506 410 244 $33.03
Kentucky 261 478 389 217 $34.39
Nevada 219 392 143 173 $40.32
Arizona 440 607 378 167 $37.51
New Mexico 134 298 114 164 $29.78
Michigan 862 1,024 1,993 162 $35.22
Kansas 190 351 296 161 $31.16
Alabama 295 455 406 160 $37.98
Iowa 155 290 556 135 $32.16
Rhode Island 102 209 184 107 $39.65
Hawaii 76 179 88 103 $33.70
Mississippi 173 268 335 95 $28.86
Utah 308 401 283 93 $37.04
W. Virginia 100 191 152 91 $32.51
Montana 81 163 83 82 $24.96
Maine 75 153 91 78 $29.70
Arkansas 152 227 243 75 $30.83
Wyoming 40 113 80 73 $29.86
New Hampshire 92 154 146 62 $30.84
Oklahoma 326 387 489 61 $29.56
South Dakota 38 83 73 45 $29.19
North Dakota 33 63 80 30 $28.78
Idaho 128 157 97 29 $30.77
Alaska 41 66 0 25 $37.80
Delaware 116 141 235 25 $60.67
Vermont 51 55 191 4 $30.48
Nebraska 112 109 279 -3 $32.47
Wisconsin 262 248 691 -14 $36.43
D.C. 618 273 2,109 -345 $70.96
Nation 26,239 53,508 44,376 27,269 $44.22

Please note the above chart and table were corrected to include the right number of IPEDS completers for North Carolina (1,053).

The wage data for lawyers is also interesting, if only for the wide variances by state. The District of Columbia has by far highest hourly median wages ($70.96) for lawyers in the nation while Montana has easily the lowest ($24.96), followed by North Dakota ($28.78) and Mississippi ($28.86).

Eight states have median wages below $30 per hour. As the the Above the Law blog points out, “That’s the kind of pay that a lot of people can get without three years of post-graduate education and six figures of debt.”

UPDATE: Several readers have noted the special cases in Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin that should be kept in mind when looking at the above surplus/deficit numbers.

Lawyers in good standing and licensed in other states can practice in D.C. — or be “waived into” membership — which explains why there are very few who actually take the bar exam there. In Wisconsin (and perhaps Wyoming and Nebraska, as one commenter noted) graduates from law schools in the state do not have to pass the bar before practicing. This is one reason why looking at the completers data from NCES is helpful; not all law schools grads at Wisconsin will practice in the state, but there’s a good chance the completer number for Wisconsin (691) is a more accurate measure of the supply than the bar exam passer number (248). The same is true for D.C.

Even with these caveats, the data still suggests a national glut of new lawyers. The two states (plus D.C.) that originally looked to not be oversupplying the market — Wisconsin and Nebraska — are most likely producing too many after all.

Illustration by Mark Beauchamp.

  1. EMSI’s annual opening figures are the sum of new plus replacement jobs, the latter of which come about as a result of turnover (employees changing jobs, retirements, etc.).
  2. Bar exam results for 2010 are available here; EMSI used 2009 data to line up with available IPEDS data.

23 Responses to “Data Spotlight: New Lawyers Glutting the Market (Updated)”

  1. Carla Bosteder

    It is stunning to me that people flock to this field when the median earnings are so low. Do they not research these facts prior to enrolling in law school? I can make more money than that working from home – without the stress of a higher level degree and mounds of debt (i.e. student loans).

  2. LSTB

    Joshua,

    Interesting analysis, but I think focusing on bar passage rates and median salaries is overkill, though my interest is in the legal education system and the profession while yours appears more macroeconomic.

    I did a similar calculation just using law graduate data from the ABA and state government projections of employment growth and replacement between 2008-2018. Surprisingly, your numbers are more optimistic than the government’s. The BLS estimates a 10-year replacement and growth rate of 24,040 jobs annually while state governments (less South Dakota) together come up with a much lower number, 19,470. This was in 2008, however, so perhaps you’re giving us good news?

    I should also point out that graduates of Wisconsin’s two law schools don’t need to pass the bar exam, so that may be why it registered as a non-glutted state. People can also waive into D.C. very easily from other states, and I think this is occurring given the very high number of lawyers per capita there. The more accurate source for attorney growth that I would use is the ABA’s National Lawyer Population by State because it tracks lawyers who are “active and resident,” which is more accurate than bar passage rates.

    -LSTB

  3. TOG

    Median wage is not an appropriate factor when evaluating lawyer salaries. There are so many reasons why this is so, if I attempted to list and explain them I would fill up pages and pages of this comments section. But, for one thing, depending on the location, area of practice, type of practice, type of firm, among other things, different lawyers spend substantially different amounts of time on “non-billable” matters. To put this in very simple terms for a non-lawyer, there are some lawyers who may be able to bill to clients 90% or more of the work-related time in a year. There are others who may spend upwards of 50% of their work-related time in a year on things that do not directly benefit a single client (or, in some cases, any client). I know what my hourly rate is and I know how many of my worked hours are billed to clients in a year, but (despite tracking most of it) I couldn’t begin to estimate the total time I devote to my legal practice in a year in order to calculate my “hourly wage”.

    Also, the fact that DC was at the bottom of the list for bar passers has to do with the fact that very few people sit for the DC bar (despite DC having the 3rd largest bar membership in the nation after NY and CA). This is because a lawyer in good standing, licensed in any other US jursidiction, can file the necessary paperwork and fees and “waive into” membership in the DC bar.

    In Wyoming and Nebraska you also can very easily become a member of the state bar without taking and passing the state’s bar exam. In Wyoming (and I believe Nebraska) you can be admitted simply by graduating from the state’s law school.

    Research is very important when writing articles like this, don’t you think?

  4. Jim Slade

    The bar exam passer statistics should be treated carefully, because many new JDs take two or three bar exams. As far as I can tell, this study does not attempt to correct for that.

    The IPEDS “completers” numbers look suspicious to me. For instance, they list only 279 “completers” in North Carolina. UNC Law School has a class size of about 250, Duke Law School’s class size is about 200, and there are five other law schools in the state. North Carolina definitely produces much more than 279 JDs each year. I wonder how reliable these numbers are.

    • Joshua Wright

      Thanks for the note, Jim. Your suspicion about North Carolina was correct. Due to my inputting error, we had the wrong IPEDS completer number in the original table; in 2009, NC had 1,053 completers tied to the CIP 22.0101 Law (LL.B., J.D.) — not 279.

      As far as bar exam data and possible double-counting, you make a good point. That’s one reason why we included IPEDS completer data alongside it.

    • Joshua Wright

      Michael,
      Your numbers line up pretty closely with what IPEDS completers for the state shows (629 completers for a surplus of 429). As we wrote in our updated post, there are some states like Wisconsin where bar exam data doesn’t present the most accurate picture. IPEDS, on the other hand, seems to be a better gauge of supply. Thanks for the link and comment.

      -Josh

  5. J-D

    I know that many students who graduate and get a J.D. do not go into practicing law. I’m not referring to those J.D.’s who can’t find their desired employment, but those who have a different plan all along. They may be J.D./M.B.A. students looking to use their study of the law to help them in business, they may be passing the bar, but plan to practice in an international city, specifically in Asia(Many Lawyers in China, pass the bar in NYC, but don’t plan on working there), they may also become lobbyists or a number of non-lawyer jobs. Can you take into account these other career options? Although I would easily agree that there is probably an excess supply of lawyers, I’m not convinced these number alone show that. I think more statistics need to go into the equation. Can you adjust for those factors?

  6. Patrick

    The comment about Nebraska and your ability to practice just by graduating from a state school is 100% incorrect. How do I know? I graduated from a Nebraska law school and many of my classmates are taking the Nebraska BarBri course right now.

    Wisconsin is the only state with diploma privilege that remains.

  7. Stephen

    One reason New York may have so many is that many people who want to practice in other states still want to pass the bar in New York, particularly if they are interested in business or corporate law. That may help to explain why that one is disproportionately high.

    But there is probably also a belief that because the largest proportion of money made by law firms is in New York, they must also have the largest number of jobs, which, surprisingly to me at least, is not true.

  8. Vinny

    Funny – if there is a shortage of lawyers in Nebraska, I wish I new where! Certainly not in Omaha – Lincoln.

  9. Dude

    TOG- As Patrick pointed out, Wisconsin is the only state that has a diploma privilege. Of course this means Nebraska and Wyoming require you to take the bar exam (or waive in based on years of practice).

    Regarding DC: Yes, most attorneys waive in (either because of their MBE score or because of years of practice). DC is not the only place that allows this. There are 37 other states that allow admission on motion based on years of practice.

    http://www.ncbex.org/fileadmin/mediafiles/downloads/Comp_Guide/2011_CompGuide.pdf

    What were you saying about the importance of research?

  10. Bozo The Clown

    This is an excellent study. However, all references to projected openings for new lawyers in a given state have been way, way off — all of the official Department of Labor and industry experts missed the utter bloodbath in Big Law starting several years ago. That had a cascading effect on jobs in medium and smaller law firms, because experienced attorneys who were laid off often submitted their applications at medium or smaller law firms, and elbowed out a number of new graduates.

    If there was some way to capture the net, net, net impact of the bloodbath over several years, and the shrining of the market as Big Law retrenched, the gloomy numbers presented here would be even worse.

    Bozo

  11. Usta didn't know how to spell "lawyer"

    I would like to address the first comment, made by Carla. I practiced as an attorney in Florida for 10 years, and have been unemployed for the last 8 months, as the economy gets worse and worse. Of course people research employment statistics before entering the field of law. You are talking about the a high percentage of the brightest people completing undergraduate studies. Consistent with what “Bozo the Clown” noted, when I did my research 10 years ago, all of the statistics and projections of the incompetant U.S. Department of Labor actually predicted a SHORTAGE of lawyers nationwide beginning about 6 years ago. The Dept. claimed people were leaving the field in droves, while law school enrollment was actually sky rocketing. The Dept. also claimed that so many lawyers would retire in the period mentioned, and that so many people were discouraged from entering the field, that the practice of law was suggested to be one of the better career choices. WRONG! WRONG! ALL WRONG! In the last 10 years in Florida, bar membership has gone from about 68,000 to about 90,000. 3500 people graduate from law school each year (not 2,100), and the state has either 3 or 4 new law schools. If I had the correct information to work with when making my decision, I would have chosen something else. By the way, how do you make over 78,000.00 a year from home as you claim? I’d like to get in on that.

  12. Usta didn't know how to spell "lawyer"

    I would also like to point out a fundamental shift in the basic fairness of the lawyers’ employment situation. The old standard 7 year partnership track is long gone. Instead, the rich senior partners are keeping the money and demanding ever-increasing billable hours with lower and lower salaries and reduced or non-existent benefits for associates (new guys). After a few years, they may make you a “non-equity partner,” which means you have no ownership or profit/loss share of the firm, it just sounds good. This is like the corporate world’s shift from giving people raises to promoting everyone a “vice president” of something (perhaps one may aspire to become VP of office supplies, with a $0.00 raise in salary). Like most of the U.S. marketplace, there is absolutely no incentive to stay at any particular position anymore. In fact, the highest salary I received was in my 2nd year of practice, and when considering having to pay for my own health insurance and the loss of almost all other benefits, my salary has actually declined annually since then. These days, becoming a lawyer is one of the most predictable ways of becoming part of the disappearing middle class, and job hunting for most lawyers has become a search for a job that doesn’t suck quite as much as the one you have now. So, for those with brains considering the practice of law, go to med school. Here endeth the lesson.

  13. DMF

    Bright undergraduates who decide against law school won’t find many alternative careers that promise abundant first jobs and handsome, secure lifelong incomes. Not everybody who would make a great lawyer is cut out for med school. For many of us, life will be a scramble.

  14. Gman

    “Bright undergraduates who decide against law school won’t find many alternative careers that promise abundant first jobs and handsome, secure lifelong incomes.”

    If this is your impression of the US legal market for recent JDs in the year 2012, then you either 1) live on another planet, 2) are infact a lawscool dean trying to hustle more naive college grads into giving you $100,000+ of borrowed money, or 3) on some REALLY good drugs.

  15. Mark Sperry

    Times are changing. The old model of being an intern to a law firm so that firm may “test drive” the student/future attorney is giving way to today’s reality of the Internet as a means for employer and future associate to meet. In the old model, students from better known law schools such as Harvard or Yale had an advantage; however with the Internet we are trying to level the playing field. Some of our country’s best attorneys come from law schools without such a fancy pedigree. Thus, to level the playing field, a few partners and I we have recently created http://www.LegalEmploymentFinder.com
    This is a FREE web site for attorneys/law students and a VERY INEXPENSIVE way for law firms/employers to post their open positions. Thus, we hope to READILY disseminate the information of available law positions into the marketplace and thereby try to level the playing field. Gman above and other commentators on this web site have vented, understandably so, about the current state of affairs of legal employment. With http://www.LegalEmploymentFinder.com We are trying to not just vent, but to DO something about it. Good luck guys.

  16. JDF007

    Another blog of a law school post, and the standard format of generalizations and no-truths.
    A lot of people can make 70, 40,30 an hour without going to law school? How come those jobs aren’t mentioned? Where are they, what do I have to do? If someone on the 500 websites of negatives mentioned this, I wouldn’t be on this site now.
    You can make that working from home? I work from home, I don’t make half that. Why do I see people commuting on the traffic reports if that was the average work at home pay??

    54% of folks who just graduated from college are unemployed and underemployed. Guess the headline and opinion headlines? “Yes College is still worth it”. I don’t need to mention the tuition in most states.

    So instead of the negatives and generalizations, where are these jobs? What’s the alternative? The usual nothing and blanket statements?

  17. Seshadri Srinivasan

    All over the world, Law graduates have vastly divergent earnings. So Median earning figure is therefore no indicator at all. Some lawyers earn as much as film Stars while some have no subsistence income even.
    Therefore If you want a guaranteed earnings post your education, law is not the course to look at, at all.

    It is because a Lawyer needs a variety of skills like PR, People Management etc besides Court craft to be able to deliver value out of work. At my firm lawconcern, We strive to do exactly that.