According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of lawyer jobs in the U.S. is expected to rise to 801,800 by 2020.  In 2010, there were 728,200 U.S. lawyer jobs.  That means we’re looking at a projected increase of 73,600—or just over 10%—over the span of the present decade.

So, yay….job growth.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad:

Divide the 73,600 news jobs this decade by ten. (C’mon…I KNOW it’s math and you’re lawyers…but you can do it…just try…I’ll wait right here…).

We’ll be adding an average of 7,360 newly employed lawyers per year across the profession.

But at our 251 law schools (200 ABA-accredited law schools, 27 unaccredited law schools, 19 state-only accredited law schools, and 5 currently in some accreditation-seeking stage), we’re minting about 45,000 new lawyers each year.

If you assume a retirement rate of 3% per year (some studies place it closer to 2.8%, but let’s be generous here), you get the following math:

 (45,000 new lawyers) – (7,360 newly created jobs) – (~22,950 retirement vacancies) =  14,600.

That’s 14,600 new lawyers each year…for whom there will be no lawyer jobs.   Zero.  Nada. Period.  A guaranteed 32.4% oversupply. One in three, basically.

Grimmer still, these numbers are based on the most optimistic employment projections we’ve seen in a long time…and they don’t include the backlog of graduates sidelined by the recession/contraction of the past few years.

Based on last month’s ABA report that the debt load at private law schools had skyrocketed an astonishing 17.6% IN ONE YEAR to $125,000 per student.  (At public schools, it’s up 10% over the same period to $75,000, meaning law student debt rose at somewhere between 400%-750% of the average inflation rate for the same period.)

Multiply the per-student debt by the 146,000 student oversupply schools will crank out this decade and you’ve got something like $20 billion in aggregate waste.

And that calculation doesn’t even begin to contemplate further above-inflation surges in per-student debt.If you cross your fingers and assume that debt will stop rising at the 4x-to-7.5x the inflation rate I referenced above, and assume it will settle somewhere around 2x (again…seems like a conservative-to-wishful assumption right now), that aggregate waste winds up closer to $30-32 billion.

In non-dischargeable debt.

Hung around the necks of hopeful new lawyers.

Ugh.

There’s a legendary saying about the difficulty of law school. It’s usually associated with Harvard, variously attributed to different professors from different eras, recounted in movies and novels. Most famously it was uttered by John Houseman in The Paper Chase. The saying admonishes 1-Ls to “look to the person on your left; look to the person on your right…one of you three will not be here next semester.”

Today, Houseman might well add, “…and another will not have  job upon graduation.”

[Unless, of course, law schools wake up and begin to train students for new-style jobs that will supplant some of the traditional means for legal service provision.  What might those jobs be?  Stay tuned to Brightleaf and see…]

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