This is the third of three posts on the current state of the legal job market. In the first post, I discussed the preliminary results of a study I did of employment of recent graduates from my law school and explained why nine-month job data does not tell the whole story on employment. In the second post, I explained why I am skeptical of the idea that the current state of the legal job market is the result of structural change. In this post, I discuss Bureau of Labor Statistics projections about the future of the legal job market.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics Projections.
Recent projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have received a lot of attention in discussions of the legal job market. For example, Eric Posner recently wrote on Slate that “the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 218,800 new legal jobs would be created between 2010 and 2020.” There is a significant mismatch between this number and the projected number of law graduates over the same period, and it is understandable why many people have raised concerns about them when talking about the future of law schools.
I think we need to be careful, however, in reading too much into these projections. I have two specific concerns about the numbers. Before I get to them, I want to note that the BLS is a remarkably user-friendly government agency. Fearing a huge, impenetrable bureaucracy, I asked a research assistant to try to find me someone to talk with about the projections. She came back ten minutes later saying that I could just call and they would connect me to the right department. When I did call, a human being picked up the phone, and connected me to Michael Wolf, the Branch Chief of the National Employment Matrix, who was happy to talk to me about the statistics. It was incredibly nice to not have to find my way through an automated phone maze to find someone to talk to.
Mr. Wolf explained to me that the job statistics are based on two surveys. The first is the Occupational Employment Statistics survey. This survey goes to employers throughout the economy (including government employers). The responses are typically filled out by Human Resources people at each employer. The second is the Current Population Survey, which is designed to help catch people who are self-employed. For our purposes, the Current Population Survey should capture solo practitioners. The data from these surveys are combined to form the base year data on employment – that is, a picture of employment in the current year. Projections of future employment are then based on macroeconomic factors, tailored to each specific industry. Estimates of job openings factor in both expected new jobs and expected retirements.