The New York Times had an interesting data crunch yesterday called “The Lawyer Surplus, State by State.” Economic consultants EMSI estimated how many new jobs for lawyers there are going to be each year, in the near future, in each state. Then they used the actual number of bar exam passers each state had in 2009 to figure out how many new lawyers would be competing for those jobs. The results were worthy of remark. Every single state except for Nebraska and Wisconsin is projected to produce more new lawyers than lawyer jobs. (D.C.’s data was included, but isn’t comparable, as most simply waive in there.)
The results are worthy of remark, but they are hardly surprising. Back when we were in law school in the mid-’90s, it was “common knowledge” (if uncited) that America had “more law students than lawyers.” We recall reading that there was a surplus of lawyers back in the ’80s. We wouldn’t be surprised if the same things were said in the ’70s and even before we were born. And we’d expect to keep hearing such things for as long as the profession endures.
The number of lawyers at any one time, however, is probably just about right. It’s simple supply and demand. A practicing lawyer is only practicing because his services are demanded by someone. If there is no demand for all the lawyers out there, market forces will ensure that the excess supply finds themselves pursuing other careers — whether they want to or not. When people say there are “too many lawyers,” they usually mean “too many bad lawyers.” (Which leads us to wonder how come you never hear that about other professions or occupations? Nobody ever says there are too many doctors, or too many electricians, though surely there must be too many bad ones out there.)
But “too many lawyers” has a different meaning when spoken by law students and freshly-minted lawyers. It means there are not enough jobs out there for everyone who’s going to be passing the bar. Again, it’s a refrain we’ve heard before. When we graduated from law school, just before the dot-com boom, we knew plenty of smart capable young lawyers who had a real hard time finding a job. Everyone was bitching and moaning that people were racking up all this debt with no means in sight to pay it off. Ditto a few years later when that bubble burst. And now some years later when the finance bubble burst. The only difference we can see between then and now is that these days the students and graduates are trying to blame everyone (except themselves) for their bad luck. As we discussed a couple of posts ago, all that happened was a long-term shift in the demand curve, to which the profession reacted late and to which the law student population has yet to react.
Because young adults continue to flood into law school. There’s been a bit of a dip here and there this year, but the numbers are still strong. So it makes us wonder what’s going to happen to all of them as they enter a market that has no room for them.
The EMSI numbers seem reasonable. They predict a nationwide surplus of more than 27,000 young lawyers each year for the foreseeable future. We’re not talking about people who didn’t make the cut, people who went to law school but washed out. We’re talking abotu JDs who actually passed the bar, and still won’t have a job waiting for them.
What are 27,000 surplus lawyers going to do each year?
Some of them will hang out their own shingle and go solo. A number of these will even do it right, taking on only the work they can ethically handle, building their skills and learning from mentors to increase the kinds of cases they can handle, and building solid reputations and practices built on solid work. Some will kill their careers early by outsourcing their ethics, biting off more than they can chew, or faking it till they’re caught. Some will just not be able to hack it — no matter how brilliant they may be at their chosen niche, if they can’t bring in more dollars than they have to spend, that shingle’s gonna come down pretty soon. Those who do it right, however, will love it. For those who can do it, nothing beats it.
But going solo isn’t for everyone. The risk is enormous. Few will operate in the black during the first year or two, and if you’re already a hundred grand in the hole, that’s hard to pull off. Most people prefer to be employees instead of owners. We don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.
These are the ones for whom the problem is greatest. They want to be employees, but there isn’t a job for them to fill. If they’re not going to employ themselves, then they’re going to have to find something else to do. Maybe get a marketing job somewhere, or parlay that JD into a real estate broker’s license.
Fortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Surplus lawyers have been around for a long time. Looking for something else to do with their JD. Unsurprisingly, they create a steady demand for all kinds of books and career counseling out there, like What Can You Do With a Law Degree? by Deborah Arron, among dozens of others. Supply and demand.
There will also be those who stick it out, waiting for that lawyer position to open up somewhere. It happens. It really does happen. And we know some outstanding lawyers who did it. But most won’t. What makes the difference is what they do with themselves in the meantime. Some make the investment in a Master’s or PhD in the field in which they intend to practice. Some find work in that field. Some volunteer. What sets them apart is the fact that, for them, the law is a calling. It’s not a job. And not just some amorphous concept of “the law,” either — they’re called to a particular practice, whether it’s criminal or human rights or M&A or whatever. A shift in the demand curve is not going to get in the way of their calling.
But for those who simply wanted a job, for whom the law is little more than the way they opted to make a buck?
…Well, they didn’t belong here in the first place.