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ANALYSIS: Pandemic Rollercoaster Sends Legal Employment Plunging

Dec. 4, 2020, 6:59 PM

After three months of gains, employment in legal occupations took a downward dip in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly employment report.

November’s total of 1.89 million Americans employed in legal occupations represents a fall from 1.93 million in October, and effectively wipes out half of the employment gains reported in legal positions since July.

We are seeing a pattern emerging in U.S. legal employment in 2020, one that has obvious ties to the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic.

November is the third month since the beginning of the health crisis in which employment in legal occupations declined, according to BLS data. And, as with the previous two down months — April and July — the employment exodus has coincided with a surge in reported coronavirus cases and renewed pressure to curtail economic activity.

This overall jobs pattern, featuring a few months of cautious expansion sandwiched between dramatic Covid-fueled retractions, could keep legal professionals on a career rollercoaster well into next year, when vaccines are expected to become widely available and help stabilize the economy.

Interestingly, employment in legal services (basically law firm employment) shows a continued slight increase in employment in November, as reported by Bloomberg Law. So the losses are being felt in non-law firm environments. Considering the unexpected success that many large law firms have experienced this year, as evidenced by the large associate bonuses being reported, this is not surprising.

Even so, it’s becoming apparent that many are choosing to get off the ride for good. Despite November’s job losses, BLS reported that the monthly unemployment rate for people in legal occupations fell to 1.5%, the lowest mark since the pandemic began. So the data continue to suggest that the legal market is permanently losing workers. This might also help explain why case surges seem to be having a smaller impact on employment over time.

Speaking of the unemployment rate, we noticed in October that for the first time all year, the monthly jobless rate for women and men went in opposite directions: women down and men up. We checked November’s figures and found that the two rates diverged once again. But this time, it was the men’s rate that fell — to 1.1%, the lowest since February — while women’s rate rose to 1.9%. This zigzagging suggests the lack of a new gender-based trend, but we will continue to monitor results in future months.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our In Focus: Legal Operations and In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being resource.

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