Lawyers get a raise

One of the enduring myths about lawyers is that there is a deep incurable structural crisis in incomes and jobs for lawyers. In fact, lawyer incomes and the number of employed lawyers has increased steadily over the last twenty years.

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported its latest data on employment and, once again, the number of lawyers employed* as well as lawyer incomes have increased. The BLS reports that the total number of lawyers employed as of May 2015 is 609,930 as compared to 603,310 in May 2014. The mean annual wage for lawyers has climbed from $133,470 to $136,260. The median has climbed from $114,970 to $115,820.

Prospects for lawyers remain particularly strong in my region, Silicon Valley. Once again the Valley has the highest mean wage paid to lawyers in the country, $204,010 as opposed to $201,240 in May 2014. This reflects the continuing strength of the tech industry here. The next highest annual mean is the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT metro area, which is ground zero for the hedge fund industry, at $181,860. In third place is San Francisco, now a key locale for social media companies, at $178,110 (up a significant amount from the prior year’s $171,910).

I tracked earlier data here and here. The only year since 1997 that lawyer mean incomes declined was 2008 in the wake of the collapse of the global financial markets. But that turned out to be the exception that has proved the rule of steady improvement in employment and incomes for lawyers.

This outcome is consistent with research by Simkovic and McIntyre, among others, that career prospects for those students who earn a JD remain bright. Of course, the credit crisis created cyclical problems. More students with BA degrees than was typical entered law school when BA-only jobs dried up. That fit a pattern going back to the 1980s where law school for three years was viewed as a place to hide out and wait for the economy to turn around. The steep decline in this crisis though meant that a very large number of students applied to law schools and enrollment climbed above historic norms.

In turn the economic recovery was slower than typical of past recessions and so many JD earners found themselves unable to find jobs as lawyers immediately after graduation. Unsurprisingly enrollment has now fallen – to below historic norms in a reverse that mirrors the earlier post-2008 increase – even as the number of lawyers employed as well as incomes continues to climb. This is presenting a near term problem for many law school which have “sticky” cost structures but likely improves the prospects for new JD’s.

*Solo practitioners and partners in firms are not included in this data. The former may fall below the means reported here, though there is no reliable data on those numbers I am aware of, while partner incomes could easily outpace those of “employed” lawyers so that the overall effect of the exclusions is minimized.