Better job market for attorneys
The ratio of lawyers in California per thousand people in the state now nearly
approximates the national average following a decade in which California clearly
had an oversupply of attorneys.
That finding — a major conclusion drawn by RAND in an assessment of future
workforce needs for California lawyers through the year 2015 — bodes well
for employment of California attorneys following a turbulent few decades when
the U.S. experienced an unprecedented explosion in the number of lawyers per
capita, with California leading the way. Researchers note that by 1990, following
the rapid expansion of the profession’s rolls in the preceding two decades,
there was an acknowledged oversupply of attorneys, and a declining economy led
many to exit the profession.
The leveling off in the number of lawyers per thousand Californians tends to
be accompanied by a leveling off in actual admissions to the State Bar of California
over the past 16 years.
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In 1987, 5,875 new lawyers were admitted to the State Bar, while in 2003 the
number was 5,723. In between, new admittees reached a high of 6,657 in 1997
and a low for that period of 5,616 in 2002, as well as a virtually comparable
5,623 in 1991.
Even with the leveling, the State Bar membership grew 82 percent over the 16
years, from 106,932 members in 1987 to 194,585 on Jan. 1 of this year. To confirm
the explosion of the 1970s and ’80s, bar membership has grown a whopping
649 percent since 1966, when the California bar had 25,966 members, and an unfathomable
1,943 percent since 1928, when after its first year in existence the mandatory
bar licensed 9,521 members.
The RAND study concludes that the number of lawyers licensed is likely to keep
pace with, or exceed the expected growth in demand, between 2003 and 2015, for
California as a whole and each region in the state. The study, which was conducted
at the request of the University of California to assess the need for a new
law school in the state, defines supply as the number of qualified lawyers at
a particular point in time willing to work under prevailing market wages. Similarly,
demand is defined as the number of lawyers that employers or clients are willing
and able to hire at the prevailing market wage.
The research points to several trends that most likely will allow the market
to avoid surplus and shortage.
First, the labor market appears to have adapted to changing demand in the recent
past through adjustments in wages and number of hours worked. Lawyers also are
more able and willing to move in and out of the profession in response to changing
demand, a fact evident at the bar as lawyers move from active to inactive status.
Second, law schools currently do not expect to increase their enrollments in
the coming decade, and third, law firms certainly are not expanding their hiring
as rapidly as in the booming ’80s. These trends, along with an expected
expansion in California’s economy that opens other alternatives to graduate
school and/or law school, are expected, according to researchers, to maintain
equilibrium between supply and demand.
Some other major findings of the study:
- Significant disparities exist at both the state level and within specific
regions among California’s ethnic groups’ representation in the
legal profession, and the state’s public law schools are not well positioned
to address the ethnic mismatch between the lawyer labor force and the multicultural
- Rural areas have more difficulty attracting lawyers, or for that matter
any professionals, such as medical doctors.
- Public law is losing ground to law firms and other businesses because of
disparities in pay.
- Lawyers are moving away from solo practice, a trend seen contributing to
declines in general practice legal services offered by affordable solo practitioners
or small firms.
- Greater specialization, in both large and small firms, is changing the
face of the profession, with a growing belief that more routine legal services
may increasingly be made available on a do-it-yourself basis, leaving more
specialized, and costly, work to be handled by professionals.
- Specializations are not evenly distributed over regions of California,
but rather they respond to local market demands. As an example, researchers
cite the San Francisco Bay Area and its high concentration of intellectual
property lawyers, noting that very high salaries are now being offered to
attorneys with mediocre qualifications because of a current shortage in supply.
However, the study concludes that market forces are expected to correct that
mismatch by continually attracting more qualified lawyers to that field in
the near future.
The exhaustive study may be viewed in its entirety at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1710/.
Specific numbers for the State Bar of California may be retrieved at the bar
Web site in the section Bar Numbers.