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ANALYSIS: Lawyer Jobs Dropped Again in Q1, But There Is Hope

April 14, 2021, 9:00 AM

Lawyer employment has failed to regain its footing since the pandemic began. Lawyer jobs fell in the first half of 2020 and, while there have been signs of a recovery, they remain below the level seen in first quarter 2020, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. And paralegals and law clerks are in the same boat. But support workers are feeling some relief, indicating that spring is bringing some much-needed joy to lower-paid legal industry workers.

As with legal occupations employment, lawyer employment is sensitive to the ebb and flow of Covid-19 infection rates. With vaccines rolling out and jobs coming back, many legal professionals are optimistic that 2021 will be a much better year than 2020 on all fronts. Data show that the legal field, however, still faces headwinds hampering the employment recovery.

Higher Covid-19 Spread, Lower Lawyer Employment

Over the past year, lawyer employment levels have been particularly sensitive to infection surges.

As the pandemic took hold and the nation faced its first and second surges, lawyer employment fell dramatically in 1Q20 and continued to decline in 2Q20, plummeting by a total of 15% in the first half of the year. Third-quarter 2020 fared better, with lawyer employment increasing 11% as the second surge ended and the rates of infection slowed.

Then came the third surge.

The 2020 holiday season led to the most intense surge of the pandemic, and lawyers were not left unscathed. In 4Q20 and 1Q21, lawyer employment tumbled, closing out 1Q21 at its lowest quarterly level since 2017.

There are several likely reasons why lawyer employment is so sensitive to the state of the pandemic. Lawyers tend to be well compensated, so if organizations need to save money, decreasing lawyer headcount might be an attractive option. Hiring plans may also have changed when surges occurred, putting off any addition of new, expensive lawyers to legal teams until the situation looked more stable; this analysis would have compounded the impact of lawyer layoffs overall. Additionally, less business activity often leads to less legal work, creating an environment where layoffs make business sense.

A Bright Spot: Legal Support Occupations

While lawyer employment continues to suffer on a quarterly basis, legal support workers are seeing a surge in jobs, increasing 30% in the first quarter of 2021. The key to understanding this phenomenon may be in the makeup of legal support jobs.

As categorized by BLS, legal support jobs are all those legal positions that do not fall into the categories of lawyers, paralegals, judges, law clerks, or title examiners. The field includes positions such as receptionists, couriers, intake personnel, and other similar roles.

These jobs may be coming back because more employees are returning to the office. BLS data indicates that 48% of those in legal occupations teleworked as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2021. This is down 10 percentage points from February.

So the return to the workplace has begun, and with it comes the return of support jobs. As offices reopen, receptionists are needed to greet visitors and accept packages, couriers are needed to deliver documents, cleaning and maintenance personnel are needed to maintain workplaces, staff are needed to run reopened mailrooms, IT workers are required to oversee on-site systems, and so on.

What Will the Second Quarter Bring?

Looking ahead, there are signs of hope. Bloomberg Law’s April 2 analysis of monthly legal occupations employment data indicates employment in the legal field is starting to grow. While these numbers may appear to conflict with the quarterly information, it is important to remember that the quarterly data is an average of three months of data. So while March employment in legal occupations was promising, job gains were not dramatic enough to move the needle upward for the whole quarter. After all, legal occupations employment in March still remained below the level seen in December 2020.

If the growth in legal employment from March continues and we don’t see an increase in Covid-19 infections, the second quarter could be a strong one for the field. We will continue to track the situation and keep you updated.

April is Stress Awareness Month, and job stress is at times unavoidable. The data show that many in the legal field have struggled with unemployment over the past year. And those fortunate enough to have a job may also be experiencing employment stress. According to the Attorney Workload and Hours Survey, 27% of lawyers have faced job instability (experienced or feared loss of employment) or financial instability (experienced or feared loss of income) during the pandemic. If you or someone you know is in need of support, visit our free In Focus: Well-being page.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our In Focus: Legal Operations page.

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