Lawyer employment information is hard to come by. But when we analyze the data we have, we find that lawyers have taken the brunt of legal industry job cuts in 2020. And, unlike prior periods, 2020’s losses in lawyer employment were not immediately preceded by losses in non-lawyer employment (which include lawyers working in adjacent legal fields, such as judges, as well as paraprofessionals).
As a profession, we rely on rumor, anecdotal evidence, and occasional press releases to gain an understanding of the jobs situation for lawyers. If we are very lucky, reporters like Meghan Tribe of Bloomberg Law will combine this information into a useful summary, as she did on July 21. However, stealth layoffs continue to throw a wrench in the works during tough economic times, leaving lawyers guessing about the real number of attorneys being laid off.
The legal industry also reviews analyses of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information on employment and unemployment in legal occupations, which can help us understand the health of the industry as a whole.
There’s also quarterly BLS data on lawyer employment available through Bloomberg Terminal that allows us to break out industry information so that we can see lawyer and non-lawyer categories separately.
Please note that the term “non-lawyers” is being used here to describe occupations other than “lawyer” within the BLS legal occupations category, as defined in its Occupational Outlook Handbook: arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators; court reporters; judges and hearing officers; and paralegals and legal assistants.
2020 Employment Favors Non-Lawyers Over Lawyers
The fourth quarter of 2019 was a high note, with the most lawyers employed since 2005, the earliest available data.
However, over the first half of this year, lawyer employment fell 15%. Lawyers lost more than 150,000 jobs in the first quarter of 2020, and the decline continued in the second quarter. The result is a lawyer employment level not seen since 2017.
Employment in the broader legal industry shows a similar trend. After ending 2019 with the highest quarterly employment since tracking began in 2000, it also experienced a decline in the first and second quarters of this year. Over the first half of the year, legal occupations employment fell close to 9%. (Note that quarterly data is an average of monthly data. If we compare monthly data for June 2020 to December 2019, the drop in employment was almost 5.5%.)
While both lawyer and overall legal industry employment decreased, non-lawyers working in legal occupations actually saw an increase in employment of close to 3%—a 5.4% increase in the first quarter followed by a 2.5% decrease in the second quarter.
As a result, non-lawyers now comprise almost 40% of legal occupations employment, up from an average of 36.5% in 2019. In fact, on an average annual basis, non-lawyers have not held such a predominant role in the industry since 2012/2013.
Although 2020 is seeing an increase in non-lawyer employment and a decrease in lawyer employment, this is not a trend generally. Quarterly employment moves in opposite directions about as frequently as it moves in the same direction for these categories of workers.
Year-Over-Year Data Shows Recovery May Take Years
While it is natural to focus on the state of jobs today, it may be useful to step back and view the situation through a wider lens. So I analyzed employment data on a 12-month basis, focusing on year-over-year first quarter data.
This analysis shows that, while non-lawyers have historically experienced employment declines in advance of lawyers, we are not seeing that happen this time around.
Lawyers and the legal professions more generally experienced a delay in the impact of the Great Recession. Lawyer employment showed the greatest decline between 1Q11 and 1Q12, with employment declining 4.6%. During the same time, legal occupations employment dropped 1.2% and non-lawyer employment increased. However, non-lawyers experienced loss of employment prior to lawyers, with a 5.3% loss between 1Q10 and 1Q11.
The Great Recession is not the last time that the industry experienced a year-over-year decline in employment. Lawyer employment experienced a decline between 1Q15 and 1Q16, and between 1Q16 and 1Q17. Legal occupations employment also experienced a decline between 1Q15 and 1Q16. As with the Great Recession, the decline in lawyer and legal occupations employment was preceded by a decline in non-lawyer employment. Non-lawyers experienced losses between 1Q13 and 1Q14, as well as between 1Q14 and 1Q15.
If we compare 1Q20 to 1Q19, we see a loss of lawyer employment of 3.4%, but in the same time period, both legal occupations and non-lawyer employment increased. And non-lawyers did not experience a decline in employment between 1Q18 and 1Q19.
If History Is a Guide, Lawyer Jobs Will Return
When looking at lawyer employment over time, we see an increasing trend. From an average of 961,000 employed lawyers in 2005 to 1.24 million in 2019, lawyers have comprised 60%–65% of total legal occupations employment over the past 15 years.
Looking back at industry struggles over the past decade, on a year-over-year basis, employment figures rebound to pre-decline levels within three years for lawyers and non-lawyers alike.
However, with the increasing prominence of legal technology and the potential for competition from non-traditional legal organizations, including the Big 4 and other law companies, lawyers need to be more flexible than ever. For some thoughts on lawyer careers in this time of turmoil, take a look at my May 18 analysis.
Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being resource.
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