Where Should You Hang out Your Shingle?

Another day, another jobs report for the legal market. This time, it’s that the percentage of last year’s grads who are employed held steady at 86.7%, which is good, but down from a pre-recession high of 91.9%. The problem with these sorts of job reports is that there is just too much noise and not enough signal. If you look at things one way, the market is rebounding. Churn the statistics a different way, and everything is terrible. Worse, none of this information helps anyone get a job or decide what sort of job to pursue.

There are more practical ways to slice and dice employment data, such as figuring out which states have an over- or under-supply of lawyers and which states are pumping too many new grads into their legal market. Armed with that knowledge, it might be possible to predict where a new job is most attainable or where hanging out your shingle would result in success (and, conversely, which states have a completely saturated landscape.)

At the national level, the United States has 40 lawyers for every 10,000 people, but those lawyers are absurdly maldistributed. For lawyers per capita by state, it’s unsurprising to learn that Washington D.C., New York, and Massachusetts top the list. D.C. is, understandably, ridiculously higher than everywhere else, with 774 lawyers per 10,000 residents. New York is second, with 87 lawyers per 10,000 people.

At the bottom are lots of states with vast tracts of rural land: North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Arkansas, all clocking in around 20-22 lawyers per 10,000 people. Those are states where it seems like more attorneys are needed, but there’s a problem: 10,000 people in, say, North Dakota are a lot more far-flung than 10,000 people in Massachusetts.

Aspiring young attorneys that are willing to relocate might find fertile ground in rural locations but will also need to make a commitment to being highly mobile to serve a more scattered population.

It’s useful to compare the per capita information to law school overproduction. If you compare the average number of jobs per year that the Bureau of Labor and Statistics thinks a particular state market will add to the average yearly number of law school grads in that same state, you can see which states are overproducing.

Vermont oversupplies its market the most, with 5.43 new law grads for every available law job, but Vermont is also likely an outlier given a tiny population. Massachusetts is next, with 5.15 grads for every job. Couple that with the fact that Massachusetts is already oversupplied per capita, and you should probably avoid Massachusetts. Skip Illinois as well. They’ve already got 49.2 lawyers per 10,000 people and 2.75 new lawyers for every projected new job.

At the bottom are, again, states with a smaller population scattered across a relatively huge amount of land: Colorado, Nevada, and Alaska are so undersupplied that they actually don’t have enough projected law grads for each new job over the last ten years. These numbers hold if you zoom out a bit as well: examined by region, the Northeast has way too many lawyers and the Rocky Mountains have way too few.

While it would be useful to be able to drill down a bit further and see what parts of which states are experiencing over- or under-supply of attorneys, there’s one inescapable trend here: rural states need more lawyers and well-populated states generally have too many. If you’re not tied to a particular location, you might want to head to a less populated state to ply your wares.

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  • John Gear

    This seems like it should be good advice — if lawyers were like independent scientists or counselors or folks who could do their jobs in isolation. But what newly minted lawyers who can pick where they relocate to need more than anything else (i.e., are not following a job) is a source of referral work, and that means NOT going out into the boondocks and expecting to be able to hang out a shingle and survive.

    Note that what smart franchises do is find the corner with a lot of other fast food joints — and they don’t avoid that corner, they get as close to it as they can, because they get the benefit of associating with the corner where people know you can find a lot of fast food joints. Same with lawyers — you can get overflow and conflict work from other solo and small firm attorneys if they know you and see you and you are close at hand. As a brandy new attorney with no experience, if you locate your practice to under-served areas, you are likely to starve before you can change any of that.

    • theonlyone

      I think the secret is to start out where it is saturated and then move to the more rural areas once you really have gained the proper experience. An example is that in the immigration field there are a surprising amount of immigrants in states like Iowa but they are not hiring you unless they feel you have had that “big city” immigration law experience.

      • Walker

        Yes, that is how I see it. I think articles extolling the rural settings for new bar admits are really doing a disservice. I think it’s likely to be the folks with 4-7 years of experience who should consider moving out to the Sticks if they’re not happy with their professional lives. They seem far more likely to have made enough professional contacts that, assuming they remain in the same state, they won’t be invisible and may be able to take work with them out into the boonies.

        It’s not the work that suffers in rural settings, assuming you have good broadband access and can afford to pay for access to secondary sources that are available at law libraries in urban settings. The challenge is getting the work.