lawgraduates006The ABA just released 10-months out employment data for the class of 2016.  The percentages of grads employed in full-time/long term Bar Passage Required and JD Advantage jobs is up (72.5% compared to 70.1% in 2015).  However, the total number of these jobs is down (28,029 to 26,923).

Is this good news for law schools?

Not really.  The employment percentage is up only because the number of law grads is dropping faster than the number of jobs. But both numbers — grads (supply) and jobs (demand) — are declining. A true recovery would show the opposite.

A 28% Drop in the Number of Law Grads

The graph above reveals a dramatic drop in the number of law grads.  The green bars reflect historical data.   The orange bars are projections for the next three years based on incoming 1L classes that have already enrolled. (Based on a 10-year historical average, 90.1% of entering 1Ls receive a JD three years later.)  Between 2013 and 2019, the size of graduating classes will drop 28.0%.

This may be the bottom of the trough, as the number of projected graduates is essentially identical for ’18 and ’19 (33,667 versus 33,658).  Yet, it would be mistake to assume that things are headed back to normal.  We have to go back to 1978 to find graduating classes this small.  At that time, the US population totaled 223 million.  Since then, we’ve added another 100 million people.

A population gain that large should translate into a lot more divorces, wills, contract disputes, DUIs, and personal injury claims, etc. And likely it has.  But it may be the case that a growing proportion of these legal problems cannot be cost-effectively solved by lawyers (more on this below).

The Old Era of Bad Employment Data

94percent2010USNAs the job market collapsed in ’08-’09, law schools came under intense pressure to provide higher quality employment data. At the time, the only metric collected by the ABA was employment 9 months after graduation. Yet, the definition of “employed” did not distinguish between jobs that were legal versus non-legal, or full-time versus part-time or temporary.  Because US News used this metric in its ranking formula, it became normal for schools to aggressively count all jobs regardless of quality.

In the 2010 US News rankings, the median employed-at-9-months figure was a remarkable 94.4%.  In contrast, NALP data published in the spring of 2010 showed only 82.0% of law grads obtaining either Bar Passage Required or JD Preferred jobs. Terms of use with member law schools prohibited NALP from reporting school level data. But obviously the numbers weren’t adding up.

As the job market continued to stagnate, law schools got hammered in the press and blogosphere for publishing unreliable, self-serving data.  Former students and alumni filed lawsuits against more than a dozen ABA accredited law schools alleging various theories of consumer fraud.  Industrious law students at Vanderbilt Law used the bully pulpit of the Internet to create Law School Transparency (LST) and demand that law schools release more granular information on employment. And eventually it worked.

The New Era of Data Transparency

The ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar responded to the public pressure by agreeing to collect, publish, and periodically audit granular information on employment outcomes. That information can now be readily downloaded from an online database.  Several other outlets now incorporate these data into online tools to improve decision making for prospective law students. See, e.g., Law School Transparency (LST)AccessLex Institute (Analytix), Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers (ELT), Above the Law (ATL).

The chart below reflects employment outcomes (i.e., demand for new law graduates) since the ABA stepped into its new role as collector and disseminator of high-quality market information.

ABAjobs2011_16

The key takeaway is that the entry-level market for law grads remains very soft.   Of the six reporting years, 2016 had the fewest number of FTLT Bar Passage Required or JD Advantage jobs. The numbers look better when they are expressed as a percentage of total class size, as in the table below:

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
63.0% 65.7% 67.1% 71.1% 70.1% 72.5%

Yet this trend is moving up only because we are at a 40-year low in the number of law grads. See Green/Orange chart above.  Enrollments are down because entry-level employment for law grads is down.  That’s the impact of the new era of transparency.

When will law school enrollments increase?  When there is a surge in high quality employment for law grads. It’s just that simple.  Legal education now operates in a real market.

Legal Problems and Legal Productivity

I created Legal Evolution because I became convinced that the biggest problem facing the legal profession and legal education was stagnant legal productivity.  Stagnant productivity is bad because it means that solving legal problems is becoming, in a relative sense, more expensive over time.  Thus, as practical matter, fewer people and businesses can afford to hire a lawyer to solve a legal problem.  Those are the economic forces driving the green/orange chart above.

The problem of legal productivity will be recurring theme here.  But a brief, concrete illustration is especially helpful for this post, as there is a systemic breakdown occurring in the practice of law.  This is a substantial root cause of underemployed law grads, flagging starting salaries, and lower law school enrollments.

The NCSC Landscape Report

NCSC_landscapeThe illustration comes from the The Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts, a 2015 study published by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The study compiled data from over 925,000 cases disposed of in state courts in ten large counties that encompass major U.S. cities (Chicago, Cleveland, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Phoenix,  Pittsburgh, and San Jose).  The sample was constructed so that it would be representative of the nation based on geography. The NCSC also wanted a mix of general and limited jurisdiction courts.

Below is Table 6, which breaks down the judgment size for the 227,812 cases that resulted in judgments exceeding $0.

Judgment amounts

Remarkably, the median judgment was for $2,441, increasing to $5,595 for matters in general jurisdiction courts. These small sums make it very difficult for lawyers to ethically serve clients and also earn a living.  Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that only 24% of cases had the benefit of attorney representation on both sides of the dispute.  Stated in the alternative, 3/4 of cases involve a party that is going it alone without a lawyer.

The Landscape report acknowledges the sharp divergence between “Justice (with a capital J)” and what actually goes on in state court. The only way to fix it, the report concludes, is through “dramatic changes in court operations … to control costs, reduce delays, and improve litigant’s experiences with the civil justice system” (p. 38).  The problem of affordable legal solutions is so big that non-lawyer entrepreneurs are engineering their business models around Rules 5.4 and 5.5 to access the market opportunity.  In the mean time, the organized bar — judges, lawyers and legal educators — wonder why our numbers are falling.

Related Post:  A Measure of Overcapacity in Legal Education (002)

What’s next?  See Units of Analysis and Adopter Types (007)

A lot. The trend is large and longstanding.  Over the last two decades, the number of lawyers working in corporations has more than tripled, growing from 34,750 in 1997 to 105,310 in 2016. The chart above shows the trendlines.

Most people working in the legal industry know that in-house legal departments have been growing, but has there been an accurate sense of the magnitude — 7.5x faster than law firms over the last 20 years?

It took a fair about of time to pull these data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and put them into the right format to generate the above chart. Yet, the chart itself raises more questions than it answers.

  • Why are corporations in-sourcing a non-core function? During this same period, outsourcing of various business processes has been growing.  Why is legal treated differently?
  • How long into the future will this trend continue? What might curtail this trend?
  • What are the age demographics of in-house legal departments compared to law firms? Law firms are graying. Will in-house departments avoid this same problem, or will it hit over the next 5 to 15 years?

The orange “in-house line” is so far above the other two sectors that is obscures another unexpected finding.  Since the mid-2000s, government has been growing faster than law firms – what’s causing this rise?  Either the government’s been on stealth hiring binge, or law firm hiring has flattened out in a way that cannot be characterized as cyclical.

Subsequent posts will return to these questions.  Before doing that, however, I want to time build out a simple theoretical framework that we can apply to legal industry data. This framework in rooted in diffusion theory.

What’s next?  See What is the Rogers Diffusion Curve? (004)

Between 1971 and 2010, the average entering 1L class at an ABA-accredited law school was 246 students with a very narrow band of fluctuation. The high-water mark was 262 in 2010. Every year since 2012 has set a new historical low. As the chart above shows, the average has tumbled by a staggering 31%.

When I made these calculations, the decades-long stability of entering 1L class sizes grabbed my attention. Economic downturns, shifts in the legal landscape, and even the fallout of ’08 didn’t initially deter enrollment. Yet, what was changing in the background throughout this period was the total number of ABA-accredited law schools. Here is the data in ten-year increments:

  • 147 in 1971
  • 172 in 1981 (+24)
  • 176 in 1991 (+4)
  • 184 in 2001 (+8)
  • 201 in 2011. (+17)

The peak for ABA-accredited law schools was 204 in 2014, though mergers and closures have reduced the number back to 201 in 2016.

Imagine if a hotel, airline, or restaurant experienced a 31% decline in the number of paid customers.  The price competition for marketshare would be disastrous, leading to industry consolidation that would improve pricing power.  Higher education is different, however, in a way that complicates the analysis. Specifically:

  • The biggest cost-driver in higher ed is labor. Because of the extensive protections on professor tenure, most of these labor costs are fixed rather than variable costs.
  • Universities have little experience with shutdowns or reductions in force; further, such actions would likely create severe cultural turmoil.
  • Unlike in private industry, there is no well-established playbook for divesting, acquiring, and merging academic units across universities.

How does the overcapacity resolve itself?

This is conjecture on my part, but based on the analysis above, I think we will see a few more law school closures, but not nearly as many as the grim economics might suggest.  Why? Some law schools have responded to the applicant downturn by creating new non-JD programs. Law bears on virtually all realms of human activity – bringing about the opportunity to create one-year Masters degrees, which appear to have significant demand, particularly in large urban centers.  Other schools are specializing in online education. To the extent such programs are successful, they will be copied by other law schools in different regions.

Will the overcapacity be resolved by a boom in demand for legal services?

This is unlikely.  The sharp decline in law school applicants was due to extensive media and blogosphere coverage of the entry-level meltdown.  This commenced in 2010.   Markets are driven by information.  Over the last few years, the public information on the legal job market became much better.

Also, there is a strong argument to be made that the downturn in the entry level jobs is due to structural factors.  For example, we know from the data presented in Post 003 that for 20 years corporations have been moving lower-level work in-house. In most cases, the workforce has been law firm associates willing to step off partnership track. Profitability has remained high at law firms because the more complex work can’t be cost-effectively in-sourced. During the 2000s, corporate clients began exerting their market power by refusing to pay for junior associates. Not all clients applied pressure, but enough to create uncertainty and turmoil within law partnerships. The solution was to hire a lot fewer associates – something they could do because the mix of work had become more specialized and could be staffed by a mix of staff attorneys, of counsel, and non-equity partners. Because so many firms converged on this same solution, the BigLaw entry level labor market was cut in half.

If corporations are reluctant to buy associate time bundled together with skilled senior partners, the boom in demand for legal services will have to come from a different source.  I think such a demand exists, though legal education will have to retool to tap into it.  That is a topic for another day.

What’s next?  See How Much are Corporations In-Sourcing Legal Services (003)