How big is the oversupply of lawyers?

It’s been all over the blogosphere since it was picked up by the NYT’s Economix blog, but in case you missed it, an economic consultancy called EMSI calculated that there is a vast oversupply of lawyers in every state. Of course, as an under-employed lawyer in the midst of doing a lot of professional number-crunching, this topic appeals to me enormously.

States With Largest Oversupply of Lawyers

The initial conclusion was that there was a lawyer surplus in every state but Wisconsin and D.C. (not a state… yet) – but this has been revised to note that these jurisdictions, plus Nebraska, are probably overlawyered as well.

The problem was, and is, that the data is based on bar exam passage: the quick interpretation of this study is that there are far too many new lawyers out there! But it’s certainly the case that some (significant?) percentage of bar takers are not new lawyers, but lawyers coming from other jurisdictions. They might have been relocated by their firm, so that the job openings data might not even reflect this move as an “opening”. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I feel like a lot of lawyers end up taking more than one bar exam through the course of their career – and in fact I know a lot of newly-minted lawyers who have already taken two, but that is far from having the economic impact of creating two lawyer-job-seekers.

What I’m most intrigued by is EMSI’s employment data: their estimates of annual job openings. This is the product that they’re trying to get you to buy through this savvy marketing move (well done!), so they’re not going to be super-transparent about where those numbers come from and what they do with them. Granted, I am not a labor economist, but I get the suspicion that the econometrics of legal employment are not so sophisticated that there isn’t plenty of wiggle room for debate. In any case, EMSI hasn’t given me any particular reason to believe that their estimates are airtight.

So, not to criticize the robustness of EMSI’s product, but I would take this analysis with a pretty big grain of salt.┬áThe estimated openings here are over a five year period (1.5 of which have already elapsed) and it seems to me that there is plenty of room for unpredictability in the near future of the domestic economy. Certainly, from my personal experience, it seems like the factors affecting the creation and announcement of legal job openings are pretty obscure. While I have no problem buying the argument that there is a glut of new lawyers with respect to the current legal job market, I’m just not persuaded that the oversupply is as drastic as EMSI suggests here.