Could the missing lawyer jobs be hiding right under our bifocals? Consider the following table of lawyer demographics from the American Bar Association. Between 1980 and 2005, the median age of lawyers increased from 39 to 49. This means that either (1) new laywers are not coming into the system, (2) older lawyers are waiting longer to retire, or (3) the "baby boom" generation is moving through the age ranks and getting ready to retire from the active workforce.
We know that the answer is not #1, so the answer is pretty clearly #2, #3, or both. We can't know what the median age is after 2005, because the American Bar Foundation does not appear to have conducted a similar study later than 2005. It seems likely, however, that the increase in median age has continued, and that the median age of lawyers is now over 50. So what could account for this trend, and what are the implications for recent (and prospective) law school graduates?
Let's look for evidence in the largest jurisdiction for lawyers, the "great" State of California. The State Bar of California has an excellent resource on member demographics that includes a chart showing the number of members of the California bar for each age from 20 to 100 (!). I have superimposed the age demographics chart from 2003 with the chart from 2012, both harvested from archive.org.
Notice anything different between the two? The number of lawyers between 55 and 75 has swelled in 2012 far beyond the numbers in 2003. By my count, tens of thousands more lawyers are now 55 and older compared to 2003, and this is just in California. That means that the reported oversupply of lawyers may well result from demographic factors, rather than permanent changes in the legal market. The demographic factors, in turn, probably result from a combination of lawyers waiting longer to retire because of 401(k) accounts decimated during the financial crisis together with the "bulge" of baby boomers working their way through the system.
If this demographic pattern is responsible for displacing jobs for young law graduates, it would seem to be good news for recent and prospective law school graduates, albeit good news that may take some years to materialize. With the financial markets having recovered near all-time highs, baby boomers may now have the financial resources to retire. That may free up jobs for new law school graduates. And even if they don't retire, it is unlikely the baby boomer "bulge" will persist in the workforce for another 10 years because of the inevitable march of time.
Of course, there are those who argue that there have been permanent, structural changes to the legal market that will reduce the number of legal jobs, and there is no denying that law school tuition remains daunting. But the demographic factors suggest the real culprit in the law school graduates' jobs dilemma of today may be the law school graduates of four decades ago.