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State of the Union: The Nation’s Lawyer Population Continues to Grow, But Barely

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Source: ABA Market Research Department, Illustration by iStockphoto.

The U.S. legal profession is going through some heavy turbulence these days: downsizing at larger law firms, a more competitive business environment, the growing impact of globalization and technology, and angst about job prospects and debt. Nevertheless, the national lawyer population still is on the rise, according to the ABA’s 2011 National Lawyer Population Survey (PDF). Only five states—Arkansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Utah—experienced drops in their lawyer populations from 2010.

The survey reflects the number of “resident and active” attorneys reported by each state as of Dec. 31, 2010. That number of attorneys in the U.S. and all its possessions and territories stood at 1,225,452 (counts for Illinois, Guam and Puerto Rico were carried over from 2010). That is an increase of 2 percent over 2010, and 17 percent over 2001.

That steady growth isn’t surprising, given that enrollment at ABA-accredited law schools also continues to rise. The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar put law student enrollment at 145,239 for the 2009-10 academic year, 3,520 more than in 2008-09.

Some have doubts as to whether these trends are a good thing for the legal profession.

For the class of 2010, employment stood at 87.6 percent nine months after graduation, the lowest since 1998, says Pamela S. Malone, senior vice president of the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education. More law grads are going into solo practice as many law firms continue to hold down hiring in response to the recession, she says.

“The continuing growth of the legal profession is not sustainable,” says William D. Henderson, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. “You have lots and lots of young people beholden to debt who are lashing out and doing things like suing their law schools.”

Still, a wide gap remains in the availability of legal services for people with moderate and low incomes, Henderson says. Many lawyers don’t feel they can afford to take those kinds of cases, and many clients feel they can’t afford the fees.

Does that add fuel to arguments that lawyers shouldn’t be the only source of legal assistance for some types of legal matters? “Bingo,” says Henderson.

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