Following up on yesterday’s news that the legal sector gained 1,000 jobs in September, I have done some research to look at the jobs gap in the legal market to give some context to the gain of 1,000 jobs. A “jobs gap” is traditionally thought of as the number of jobs it would take to get back to pre-recession levels. In this case, though, the number of lawyer jobs has significantly increased since 2003, so what we need to look at instead is the number of jobs in light of the number of new graduates entering the market. The resulting jobs gap number is mind-blowing.

Methodology for Determining the Numbers

Just so we are clear up front, I’m not a statistician, an employment expert, or anyone who claims to know anything about the undoubtedly complex formulae that comprise job estimate numbers. I simply relied on what seemed to be pretty reliable numbers from pretty standard sources of data.

The numbers on current lawyer jobs came from yearly estimates for 2003–2011 made by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. They have a general snapshot of the legal employment market as of May of 2011, and links to various breakdowns of occupational employment and wage data for the years at which I looked. I limited my search to the years 2003–2011 because those were the years for which the National Sector NAICS Industry Specific Estimates were consistently available. (Prior years only used variations of X-digit NAICS or SIC industry number identifiers, and I wanted to ensure I was using consistent data for comparisons.)

Figures for total law graduates per year were taken from the yearly summaries of Recent Graduates produced by NALPthe National Association for Law Placement. Each year’s Total New Law Grads number was based solely on that year’s “Selected Findings from Employment Report and Salary Survey.” The 2011 Selected Findings can be found here [PDF], and other reports can be found by looking under the specific year listed on NALP’s website.

I pulled the numbers solely for those employed as lawyers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics information—which are broken down by industry (e.g., construction, utilities, health care, professional services, etc.)—listed them by year, and totaled the numbers for total estimated lawyers employed per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data do not include self-employed lawyers (so solo practitioners are out, but solo practitioners likely only account for around 4% of lawyers since 1999), and the numbers are rounded to the nearest 10. This also means that non-lawyer legal sector jobs (e.g., judges, judicial law clerks, arbitrators, paralegals, etc.) are not included in the estimates.

The Results

After pulling and totaling the numbers for employed lawyers per year and the number of law grads, I produced a spreadsheet with all the relevant lawyer employment data. The employment numbers are listed by year on each tab, and a “Yearly Totals” tab lists the results for legal employment per year, the rate of change in legal jobs by year, and the number of law school graduates per year. Here are the important numbers:

The number of lawyers employed since 2003 has actually increased every year except for 2008, when approximately 4,290 jobs were lost. Here is a chart outlining the growth between 2003 and 2011.

The net gain in lawyer jobs since 2003 has been approximately 51,540.

However, since 2003 the total number of graduates of law school has been 376,201—that’s 67% of the total number of lawyers employed in 2011 (563,520).

To determine the size of the jobs gap that currently exists for lawyers, we just need to subtract the net job gain since 2003 from the total number of law graduates since 2003, giving us a grand total of 324,661 law school grads who are not currently employed as lawyers. That is the number of jobs the legal industry would need to add to employ every law school graduate as of the end of 2011.

Given the increase in 2011 of 2,180 jobs, and the number of law school graduates in 2011 being 41,623, the legal market would need to add 39,433 jobs just to catch up for that single year.

The Solution?

Well, there’s your problem. There is no immediately evident way to suddenly add another 67% of total lawyer jobs to the market, causing an amazing glut of unemployed or underemployed lawyers in the market. Some law schools have begun limiting their class sizes, but with the rate of increase of lawyer jobs in the past few years, law schools would need to shrink their class sizes by around 90% to even out the supply and demand.

The first part of solving a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. That has been pretty clear for a number of years. But what do we do about it now?

(photo: Shutterstock: 101835361)

(See the latest installment in this ongoing story.)