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February 02, 2013


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Brian Tamanaha

This information is available online directly from the ABA, under the heading legal education statistics (no paywall):

Click on Enrollment and Degrees. The ABA also posts data on scholarships, tuition, debt, etc.

Alfred Brophy

Thanks for this data, Dan and the link, Brian. Lots of interesting trends in those data -- in addition to the growth in women attending law school (which are available at the link Brian provided). Also, the dramatic increase in students from about 1967 to 1971. I'm guessing the war had something to do with that, but the enrollments continued high after that. You could write a lot about American history through the history of law schools.

I'm also interested in attrition. It used to be a lot higher than it is now. Looking for a moment at the JDs awarded in the early 1960s and comparing it to the first year enrollment three years before, it seems like only around 60% of the people who were enrolled as 1Ls graduated three years later. It looks like the graduation rate is now closer to 86% (comparing the 1L enrollment in 2009 with graduations in 2012). Do we have a good sense of why students were leaving in greater numbers than they are now? Did people leave for academic reasons? Because of job opportunities without the JD? Something else?

Alfred Brophy

One other question here -- there's a dramatic increase in the number of ABA approved law schools from 1968 to 1975. Does this reflect schools opening or schools obtaining ABA approval? Partly both?


"Do we have a good sense of why students were leaving in greater numbers than they are now"

Yes - debt, or the sunk cost fallacy. As the majority of law students found themselves heavily indebted by the end of their 1st and 2nd year of law school, most felt that they had no option but to stay the course when before, with lower debt levels they might have dropped out.


I assume that schools were much more willing to flunk students out in past decades (the whole, "Look to your left, look to your right, one of you will not be here at graduation" phenomenon...). With grade inflation, and law schools' need to maintain enrollment for financial purposes, that phenomenon has largely gone by the wayside.


This is a delicate topic so I will post anonymously. Another factor reducing the attrition rate is the increased diversity of the students. About half of certain URM groups are in the bottom 10% of their class. Flunking out students based upon grades would lead to intolerable results.

Alfred Brophy

Hi MacK, I'm skeptical of your explanation that the difference in attrition relates to debt load. The graduation rate three years later for those entering in fall 1979 was about 87% (more or less where it is now). And don't we look back on the late 1970s/early 1980s as an era of low tuition and debt?


Intolerable for whom? The public who are served by these officers of the court?

Econ Guy

Would be interesting (and informative) to see these numbers along with cost of tuition as compared to median income. Did cost of tuition rise proportionally to income; did cost rise because demand increased? Did the "cut" of the university change over time? There are so many factors-along with debt load-that are meaningful.


I'd be interested to see this in relation to both population in general and number of people w/ an undergrad degree (and so able to go to law school, at least in principle.) I don't suppose that would make the numbers look better for now (the population is larger than 2000-01, and I assume the population w/ a BA is also larger) but I think it would make some of the comparisons more useful.


This discussion only considers half of the question -- the supply side. We don't really care how many new JDs are created each year, so much as whether the market can absorb them (i.e., whether supply and demand are in equilibrium).

So, I pulled up the BLS CPS series for the legal sector. (For those interested, I used series ids LNU02032459, LNU03034025, LNU04034025, LNU02038291, and LNU02038292.) These series give us the total number of folks employed and unemployed in the legal sector since 2000. That includes most JD-required jobs (lawyers, judges, law clerks), but also includes law-related non-JD jobs (paralegals, legal services); numbers for these latter jobs are only available since 2010.

The bottom line is that the legal sector has been adding an average of about 32,000 jobs per year since 2000. Based upon the data since 2010, about 65% (about 21,000) of these are JD-required jobs. The industry totals are copied at the bottom of this comment.

The average addition of 21,000 jobs per year is net of new JDs and retired JDs. If we (generously) assume the average lawyer's career is 40 years long, 2.5% of the industry retires per year -- or about 22,000 in 2000 and 29,000 in 2011.

This suggests that the market is absorbing about 50,000 new JDs per year today. Based on Dan's data, this means that we're actually producing near the market equilibrium for new JDs per year. (This is _not_ the conclusion that I expected to draw when I started this analysis.) The JD retirement rate is, of course, very elastic -- it is likely that during the 2007-2010 downturn folks were leaving their jobs at decreased rates (older JDs weren't retiring because the market hurt their savings; younger JDs weren't leaving their firms because the economy-wide unemployment rate was terrible).

Indeed, with JD enrollment falling well below 50,000 per year, and a possible glut of lawyers who delayed their retirements during the downturn, the new supply of JDs could actually be falling below demand! (Again, not at all what I'd expect to discover in these numbers -- and I am very open to being proven wrong.)

Of course, these numbers are all a bit fuzzy and built on a number of assumptions. But it does appear that supply and demand are surprisingly close to equilibrium. Also, these numbers don't tell us much (if anything) about tuition questions. It's entirely possible that average salaries are going down, even as the number of jobs continues to increase.

Here's the summary BLS data. "Industry size" is the total # of folks employed (lawyers, judges, clerks, paralegals, legal services); "hiring year" is Aug-July; numbers are in thousands. I've included the unemployed numbers for reference/interest. Sorry about the weird formatting; I couldn't get tabs to work properly in the comment.

Hiring Year_____Industry size_______Net adds_______# unemployed______Unemployment rate

I'm posting this anonymously, being a very new, very junior professor. But if anyone would like to play around with this data, post here and I'll mail you.


But that's not what ITLSS tells me to believe.....

Brian Tamanaha


If supply of JD's is below demand, as you suggest, why does NALP report that only 56.7 percent of 2011 graduates obtained full time jobs as lawyers? NALP gets its employment information from law schools, which are not understating their results.


Really Junior:

Thanks for digging up these numbers, but there's something that seems to be missing. You describe an estimated 29,000 retired JDs in 2011. Let's assume this is correct. For your rough equilibrium conclusion to be valid, it would have to be true that something like 29,000 retired JDs are being replaced. But, what if - due to shifts in the packaging and delivery of "legal services" rather than "lawyering", those retired JDs aren't being replaced in anything like a 1:1 ratio? Moreover, to simplify grossly, if illustratively, suppose many retired JDs are law firm partners. Replacing them with new associates isn't immediately possible (you can't make a partner out of new law graduate), and firms seem inclined to get rid of less- productive (older?) partners anyway, which may keep per-partner profits up. Doesn't this crude model better describe the current picture? After all, if that replacement was really happening, say on an assembly-line basis eventuating in partnership, we wouldn't have so many unemployed new JDs.

Btw, another way to read your data is that new JDs could be taking paralegal jobs, which is to say that firms are replacing retired JDs with presumably cheaper service providers. But, this wouldn't be an equilibrium either (because new JDs didn't need law degrees for those jobs) and I don't see any evidence that JDs are even getting these jobs in large numbers. Am I missing something?



It's a very good question -- I was very surprised by the numbers. We need to look at the supply and demand side of the equation. Right or wrong, these numbers hopefully make that clear.

In terms of explanation, I have two ideas. First, current-year JDs are competing with prior-year JDs. It's well known, and the numbers show, that in the 2007-2009 period firms weren't hiring much at all. This created a glut of JDs. Many have left the market; others have continue to compete for jobs. And, second, the attrition trends that affect the broader economy affect the legal economy as well. Junior lawyers are less likely to risk leaving their jobs due and many senior lawyers have delayed their retirement. Both of these push down demand, but only in the short run. (The retirement effect could marginally decrease demand in the long-run.)



I agree with both of these points. But I think the first one is answered by the data directly: the legal sector is adding jobs in absolute numbers. The second point is very well taken, and I'm frustrated that BLS only started separating out paralegal and legal services jobs in 2010. We can't tell from this data if there's a shift from JD-required to JD-preferred (or even non-JD) legal sector jobs; and we can't tell if there's a shift in salary, e.g., from full-time associate jobs to part-time contract jobs.

As mentioned in my reply to Brian, the key point is that we need to look at both the supply and demand sides of the equation. It's meaningless to say "50,000 new JDs/yr is too many" unless we can say "because the legal market is only absorbing 40,000 per year."

Steve Diamond

Will Brian Tamanaha join me in decrying the fact that academics must post their research anonymously to avoid retribution from the critics of the legal academy?

Brian Tamanaha


This passage is from BLS, "Lawyer Outlook:"

"Competition should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available. As in the past, some recent law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. This service allows companies to hire lawyers “as-needed” and permits beginning lawyers to develop practical skills."

Matt Leichter (Law School Tuition Bubble) indicates that BLS has repeated this passage for a decade. Data from NALP indicates that even before the 2008 crash, going back to at least 2001, about 30 percent or so of grads were not landing full time jobs as lawyers. Your findings do not match these indicators.

Perhaps you should email Leichter with your findings (see LSTB). He has lots of information from BLS and should be able to figure out what explains the disparity.

Brian Tamanaha


I know junior profs who post anonymously, not because they fear retribution from critics, but because they fear their senior colleagues who don't like what they say will deny them tenure. They are prudent to remain anonymous.

Tenured law professors who have something to say, on the other hand, should put their name on it--demonstrating the courage of their conviction. The ire of critics is no excuse for a professor who has iron clad job protection.


Thanks Brian. I'll look into that (to the extent I can -- I'm playing with these numbers during writing breaks.) That said, if the 50,000/yr steady-state absorption estimate is correct, given than law schools only began hitting that number of new JDs/yr as the 2007-2009 recession began, BLS's statement is surely correct.

Returning to NotSoJunior's early points, I've been looking at the LE data series for earnings data, but the data is too coarse to tell if there has been any effect. There does, however, appear to be about a 10% increase in the ratio of part-time to full-time lawyers between 2000 and 2012, and a similar increase in the ratio of paralegals to full-time lawyers. Additionally, the year-over-year growth in part time positions is slightly higher than that of full-time positions (about 2.6% vs. 1.9%); the year-over-year growth in paralegals has averaged 3.5%; it was about 2% from 2000-2007, and has shot up to about 5.5% since 2008.

All of this does tend to corroborate the intuitions that JDs are shifting from full-time positions to part-time and paralegal positions. That said, the BLS data is coarse; these data, at least to the cursory extent of my analysis, corroborate, but don't confirm, these intuitions.

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