In most of the U.S., and for many law school graduates, the legal job market continues to be lousy. This has been a big storyline for several years, and potential law students — not to mention law schools themselves — appear to be getting the message. As the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog noted in December, first-year enrollment at U.S. law schools sank to the lowest total since 1977. The 39,675 full- and part-time students enrolled marks a 31% drop since 2010, when more than 52,000 were enrolled.
Still, the number of law degrees completed in the U.S. has yet to dip. There was actually a slight bump in degrees awarded from 2011 to 2012, the latest year of data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. The following chart is from EMSI’s Analyst tool:
In 2011, we wrote about the massive glut of new lawyers coming into the job market in a data spotlight that was mentioned by the New York Times and many other media outlets. In this post, we updated the supply-and-demand outlook for lawyers by state to see if the picture looks any better than it did a few years ago.
The answer: Not really. Hiring has mostly been stagnant coming out of the recession, and more than twice as many people graduated with law degrees in 2012 (46,565) as there are estimated job openings (21,640). But take away full-time, salaried positions and the real growth in the lawyer job market has come from those working on the side in part-time arrangements. It’s here where many of the job opportunities appear to be, which is hardly encouraging for newly minted lawyers deep in debt.
How We Measured Supply and Demand
To gauge the supply of new lawyers, we looked at 2012 completion data from the NCES for the primary juris doctorate law program (CIP 22.0101). These numbers track with data provided by the American Bar Association and appear to be a better measure of supply than looking strictly at bar exam passers at the state level (for reasons outlined in an update to our original analysis). However, if you’re curious like we were about bar exam passage figures over the last few years, the national total exceeded 54,000 in 2011 and 2012 (this chart shows 2006-2012 bar exam data).
To estimate demand for lawyers, we used annual job openings from EMSI’s final 2013 dataset (2013.4 Class of Worker). EMSI’s annual openings include the estimated employment change and turnover for lawyers from 2013 to 2014. The opening figures are for salaried employees and self-employed lawyers; we’ll get to proprietors who work on the side later.
We noted earlier the supply of lawyers far exceeds estimated job openings at the national level. For most states, the outlook is similar — there are between two to four graduates for every opening. The most extreme oversupplies are in Vermont (7.9 law grads for every opening), Michigan (5.4), Massachusetts (4.4), and Mississippi (4.3).
Vermont doesn’t just have a large surplus of new entrants into the market. It also has lost 15% of its lawyer workforce since 2010, and at the same time, it has seen an explosion of lawyers who work on the side or part-time (see next section).
Six states, meanwhile, have just about the right amount of graduates compared to openings: Alaska, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. All these states, as well as few others, appear to be in OK shape (Alaska doesn’t have a law school, so it imports all of its lawyers).
Keep in mind that not every law grad is going to practice or take the bar in the state in he or she graduates from. This is especially true in big law graduate-producing states such as New York and Illinois. But as Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic, “law is in many ways still a geographically bound profession.”[table "676" not found /]
Lawyers Who Work on the Side
While the pace of hiring has slowed for full-time, salaried lawyers, the numbers of lawyers who do legal work on the side while holding down other jobs is growing rapidly. Nationwide, EMSI estimates jobs for those who draw miscellaneous income as lawyers (income that isn’t derived from their primary job) have grown 25% since 2009 and have more than doubled since 2001. Median earnings for these workers are $35.62 an hour, nearly $20 less than salaried lawyers.
California and Texas combined have more than a fifth of lawyers who work on the side, according to EMSI’s extended proprietor data. California alone has added nearly 6,000 of these positions since 2009, a 37% increase. New York, a state with more than 10,000 on-the-side lawyers, has grow even more (51%).
But no state compares to the wild growth of Vermont, where our estimate of on-the-side lawyers has gone from less than 50 in 2009 to nearly 500 in 2013. We’ve already touched on Vermont’s struggling legal job market, and this seems to be further evidence that lawyers in the state are turning to side or part-time gigs with the decline of full-time opportunities.
Looking at Degree Output at the Most Prestigious Schools
We’ve established it’s not a great time to be coming out of law school. But it also depends on where you graduate from. To conclude, here’s a look at the degree output at some of the most prestigious law schools in the U.S. Completions have remained fairly constant at most of these top-tier schools, something you’d expect given the crush of students wanting to get into these schools and the employers wanting to hire their graduates.
Georgetown and Harvard produce the most degrees among prestigious schools. The biggest jump in degrees has come at Duke, which went from 243 law grads in 2003 to 363 in 2012. Stanford, meanwhile, saw a small decrease (from 193 to 180). And while not among the top tier, Thomas M. Cooley Law School has gone from 438 law degrees in 2003 to 1,080 in 2012, the most in the nation.
One last thing: A law degree is expensive, sure — especially at the best law schools in the country. But not every person who graduates from law school will practice law (for reasons they can control or not). The skills gleaned while getting a law degree are valuable, whether inside or outside the legal industry. A paper from economists at Seton Hall and Rutgers argues the average law degree-holder will earn $990,000 more over his or her lifetime than a bachelor’s degree-holder.
Data shown in this post comes from Analyst, EMSI’s web-based labor market data and analysis tool. For questions or data for your region, contact Josh Wright (email@example.com). Follow EMSI on Twitter @DesktopEcon.