'Hysterias-R-Us legal lemming movement’ attacked; law prof predicts robust legal market

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Western New England law professor René Reich-Graefe thinks there is too much hype and too little accurate reporting about the legal market for law grads, producing a “Hysterias-R-Us legal lemming movement” of naysayers.

Writing in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Graefe criticizes “today’s hyped-up, news-hungry and distortion-friendly blogsphere” that seizes upon bad news, and uncritically repeats it “until original factual misrepresentations become accepted as the ‘reality’ we want to hear and believe in.” TaxProf Blog notes the article, available here.

Graefe projects an increased rate of lawyer retirements and growing demand for legal services—forces that mean rosy times ahead for law grads. “Recent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country—a legal market which will grow, exist for, and coincide with, their entire professional career,” he writes. “Over the next two decades, the legal profession market is moving statistically into the direction of almost guaranteed legal employment for all law school graduates.”

What about predictions to the contrary? Graefe cites “misleading math” and “reckless logic” in a Halloween 2012 Washington Post article forecasting job openings in the legal market. Graefe says the Post reported on a federal forecast of 73,600 new lawyer jobs in the decade ending in 2020, but the newspaper overlooked the additional and significantly higher number of job openings that would be refilled when lawyers retired.

“What apparently got lost (or was conveniently overlooked) in the ‘reasoning’ employed by the Washington Post is the little, one-syllable word “new” in the phrase ‘73,600 new lawyer jobs,’ ” Graefe wrote. He also points out that the job numbers reported by the Post didn’t include self-employed lawyers or law grads who were “gainfully employed” in other professions.

Graefe faults the ABA Journal for summarizing the Post story “without any further comment or critical reflection,” resulting in distortion by other sources in a “journalistic ‘game of telephone.’ ” (For more statistics, see “Law by the Numbers” in the ABA Journal.)

Graefe’s prediction of future good times for law grads is based on several projections, including Bureau of Labor statistics cited by the Post. In 2010, he says, there were about 728,200 jobs for employed lawyers and 1,040,000 actual employed lawyers.

Graefe says the median age of lawyers is increasing in “an unprecedented process of overaging.” More than half of the currently practicing lawyers will be retiring in the next 15 to 20 years, he says—in raw numbers, about 520,000 lawyers will retire by 2030.

He also sees a growth in demand for legal services caused by several factors: a population increase of about 16 percent by 2030, a shift in generational transfers of wealth from the Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers to Generation Y, and changes and additional complexity in the law. If per capita lawyers remain the same, that means there will be a need for 156,000 more legal professionals. If lawyer per capita ratios continue to increase, an additional 166,479 new legal professionals would be needed, he says.

Graefe then adds those two numbers along with the number of lawyers needed to replace retirees to deduct that there will be 842,479 newly employed lawyers between 2010 and 2030. The number is close to the number of law grads over the next 20 years, if the schools generate graduates that are the same as 2012 levels, when there were 44,495 law grads from ABA-accredited schools.

Because some law graduates don’t intend to practice law or won’t be able to pass the bar, “one can further predict that shortages will already begin to develop over the next two decades in the general availability of legal services,” he asserts.

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