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Reflections on the Profession: The (Nearly) Nationwide Lawyer Surplus

June 29, 2011

A guest post from my friend Douglas Greenberg, a San Francisco tax attorney with whom I share an interest in economic analysis and trends in the legal profession. The implications of the law-grad surplus he discusses are, of course, an additional cause of job dissatisfaction in the legal profession, which I discussed yesterday.

We’ve all suspected that law schools are churning out more graduates than the economy can absorb. Now, finally, an economics firm has actually crunched the numbers. Economic Modeling Specialists, a data firm, has put a number on the so-called lawyer surplus.’ The firm went state by state and compared the number of job openings against the number of bar passers. It turns out that the gap is large and growing. Some of the data may be flawed (for instance, the numbers on local job openings may be an undercount). And of course, the recession skews the results down significantly. But, in any case, it is an interesting effort to quantify the much talked about supply-demand imbalance in the legal marketplace.

P.S. One major flaw of the reporting was that the “worst” states were identified by the total number of surplus lawyers. This will obviously be higher in the higher population states. To capture the true state of the legal job market crisis, I prepared a spreadsheet that sorts each state by the ratio of job openings to newly minted lawyers. Call it the “misery index” for new law grads [Ed. note: Doug always had an inclination towards gallows humor.] So, for example, New York, which made the news with a new-lawyer surplus of several thousand, deserved the attention because it also had a low ratio of job openings to new lawyers. But Wyoming, which got no attention with its new lawyer surplus of only 73, had the fourth lowest ratio, a brutal “misery index” of 35%.

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