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Law School Defenders Remain Strong

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"Lawyer employment remains strong," says Dean Nelson Miller in an article published on The Careerist. To get lulz started, Dean Miller is dean of Cooley - Grand Rapids. He cites a bunch of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that purportedly shows lawyer unemployment reached an all time high in 2009, at a staggered 2.3%, but is now back down closer to its historical levels, hitting 1.5% in 2010. There's a common belief that lawyers are bad with numbers, and statistics are basically just numbers about numbers. Dean Miller's analysis does nothing to dispel this belief.

 

Dean Miller’s defense against claims of lawyer unemployment relies on two wildly problematic terms, “lawyer” and “unemployment.”

While there certainly are many people who attend law school with plans to do something other than practice law, such as consulting or academia, it’s safe to assume that becoming a lawyer is the goal of the vast majority of law students.

According to NALP, only 68.4% of the class of 2010 found work requiring bar passage. 7% of these jobs were part time, and (excluding clerkships) 19% were temporary positions. I’m unaware of any data collected by law schools on the hopes and dreams of its entering classes, but the number of students looking to find full-time, permanent employment as a lawyer is certainly well north of 50%.

While looking at jobs that require a JD or bar passage is certainly important, the classifications are still highly flawed. These groups catch up a large group of people working in document review. Roughly one-fourth of big businesses’ outside legal fees are now spent on document review, and that amount is quickly increasing.

Not to disparage anyone working in these jobs, but they are not lawyer positions. You are not doing legal research, or legal analysis, writing memos, or advising clients. You are a very expensive version of ctrl+F, and as soon as computers can reliably do the work, they will. What’s more, these positions are dead-end, and do not lead to promotion to associate status. Some people will work their way out of document review, but they are the exception. You may be classified as having a job that requires bar passage, but you are not working as a lawyer. This is a distinction that doesn’t show up in any data about lawyer employment.

 

The BLS data that Dean Miller relies on raises some questions he has not addressed. The first is how someone comes to be classified as a lawyer for that survey. If one graduates from law school but never obtains employment as a lawyer, are you an unemployed lawyer, or some other classification? If you graduate from law school, don’t obtain legal employment, take a seasonal job at a big box store, and then lose it after New Years, what are you classified as then? The second important issue is that if you are an admitted attorney working retail, you’re not unemployed. There is no classification for people working outside of their preferred profession. The BLS statistics look at unemployment, but what people really care about is employment as a lawyer; the data simply isn’t that detailed. Dean Miller isn’t to blame for the data not being better, but that does not permit him to draw conclusions the data doesn’t support.

I will concede that the legal profession is fairly well insulated from unemployment. But, only in a superficial way. It is not insulated from the recession. 70% of lawyers work at firms with 10 or fewer lawyers, and 48% are solo practitioners. Solo practitioners are of course completely immune from being laid off, and people working at smaller firms enjoy much of the same protection. Layoffs are mostly a risk for junior and mid-level associates working at large firms, and only 14% of lawyers work in firms with 100 lawyers or more.

So, yes, lawyer unemployment is not very high. What we haven’t seen is how the recession affects the revenues of lawyers at these small firms. If clients stop walking in the door, you’re still employed as a solo practitioner.  You don’t care about the employment label though, you care about the ability to pay your bills.

Lawyers are only as recession-proof as their clients. This was painfully obvious with large firms. As corporate clients lost money and stopped making deals, corporate law jobs vanished. Budget cuts have forced government agencies to implement hiring freezes and to take lawyers on in unpaid positions. And, of course, small firms have been hit. You don’t lose your job, but if your clients do, they lose their ability to pay you. You keep your job title, but lose your revenue.

 

Dean Miller has taken the one piece of data that looks promising, and focused on it to the exclusion of everything else. The data about the number of lawyers working in small or solo practices, I actually got that from something else Dean Miller wrote, just last week. He was explaining why we shouldn’t focus so much on Big Law, because that’s not where most graduates end up. He is fully aware that most lawyers work in these kinds of jobs. Nothing wrong with those jobs, either. But, a mind capable of even minimal analytical reasoning can look at the number of lawyers at small and solo practices, think about how these practices work, and see that unemployment data cannot give an accurate picture of the health of the legal market.

I can’t tell you whether Dean Miller is aware of the flaws in his reasoning and willfully misleading his readership, or if he has succumb to zealous wishful thinking, or if he has merely not thought the issues through. As dean of a law school though, any of these explanations is damning.


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