Lawyers reached new highs in wages and employment pre-COVID19

Proving once again that there are booms and busts in the economy, American lawyers in general, and Silicon Valley lawyers in particular, made gains in employment and income as of May 2019 according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data is the result of surveys conducted by the BLS every six months, and is considered the closest thing we have to hard data about occupational levels and income.

I began posting this data several years ago to demonstrate the basic fallacy in the case made by critics of the American law school and legal education. Those critics argued that the decline in enrollment of students in law schools following the 2008-2013 credit crisis marked a permanent change in the occupational category of lawyers, and thus should mandate significant changes in the nature of law firms and law schools.

When confronted with data that indicated that over many years, law school graduates outperformed similar students who went through life without a J.D., the critics simply doubled down. But they slowly disappeared as, year after year, data indicated that there was an upturn in the employment of lawyers, incomes of lawyers and enrollment in law school. The case for some kind of “law school exceptionalism” had clearly been laid to rest.

Unfortunately, we are now faced with another kind of “natural experiment” that will likely bring out some of the same tired old arguments. With the COVID19 related shutdown of the economy, there will be many who will argue, once again, this will mark some lasting and unique moment for lawyers and legal education. Well, we shall see.

But we no longer have to wait for the final chapter in the wake of the credit crisis. The data is now in.

As of May, 2018, across the United States there were 642,750 people employed as lawyers (these numbers do not include partners, only lawyers who qualify as “employees,” so there is some undercounting as well as a reduction in the income that actually accrues to lawyers). That number rose to 657,170, a modest 2.2% increase over the prior May but on par with that year’s increase. In other words, steady if slow growth at the national level.

Here, in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose to Palo Alto), the numbers also showed a modest increase growing from 5,610 to 5,680. Nearby in San Francisco/Oakland, where the tech sector is also strong the number grew from 16,490 to 16,750.

Earnings for lawyers are up, too.

Nationally, the median annual wage as of May 2019 (May 2018) was $122,960 ($120,910) and the mean was $145,300 ($144,230). This is slightly behind the rate of inflation (1.7% v. 1.8%).

Here in the Valley, the numbers were more impressive. Again, the San Jose/Palo Alto region led the nation with the highest mean wage: $218,420 (2018: $207,950). This represents a 5% increase from the prior year, well ahead of inflation and following a nearly indentical increase the prior year. So, over three annual reporting periods Silicon Valley lawyers have seen incomes rise by more than 10%. Of course the cost of living here is higher than in most of the country: it rose year over year about 3% in nearby and similar San Francisco.

So, a decade after the onset of the credit crisis lawyers have continued to prosper. Law school critics predicted brazenly, and without any rational basis, a period of radical restructuring of the legal profession and legal education at the price of falling wages and jobs and shuttered law schools. Nothing approaching their predictions ever happened.

Will COVID19 be any different? Well, as the philosopher Yogi Berra used to say, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So, stay safe, and stay tuned to the annual release of BLS occupational data.