13 August 2019

Comprehensive picture of the US legal profession

Law by the numbers is revealed as new American Bar Association profile of the legal profession is published.

There are 1.3 million lawyers in the United States, and 1 in 4 of them are in just two states - New York and California. Nearly half of all law school graduates take jobs at law firms, but 12 percent go to work for the government and 1 percent start a solo practice. These are headline numbers in the new ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, released at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Salaries

The legal profession has grown at nearly double the rate of the US population since 2010, according to the report. However, lawyers’ pay increased at a slower rate than inflation from 2017 to 2018, with the average lawyer’s salary rising 1.6 percent compared to the 2.1 percent rate of inflation for the same period. While lawyer salaries almost doubled from 1998 to 2018, the cost of living rose 53 percent. However, the report’s salary information includes only wages, and not profits for law firm partners and shareholders. The average lawyer earned $144,230 last year, making less than dentists, who earned $180,590 on average, but more than physicists, who made $125,280, the report said. The report says that the fastest growth over the past two decades was from 1997-2002, when the average lawyer wage rose 45 percent, from $72,840 in 1997 to $105,890 in 2002, not adjusted for inflation.

Legal tech

The study also confirms the profession has been slower than many to embrace legal tech. According to the ABA 2018 Legal Technology Survey Report, 90 percent of lawyers surveyed said they use free online resources to conduct legal research, while 44 percent said they still use print materials “regularly” for legal research. Ten percent of lawyers say their firms use artificial intelligence-based technology tools, and 36 percent think AI tools will become mainstream in the profession in three to five years.

Demographics

The report confirms trends in well-being, stating “Recent studies show that lawyers struggle with these problems at levels substantially higher than the general population and other highly educated professionals.” Some 25 to 30 percent of lawyers facing disciplinary charges suffer from some type of addiction or mental illness, it said. Among other findings are that the number of white lawyers has fallen 3 percent from 85 percent in 2019 compared to 88 percent a decade ago; which compares with 76.6 percent of all US residents. In 1970, 91 percent of all law students were men, but by 2018 the percentage of female law students has risen to 52.4 percent. The national bar passage rate for first-time test-takers has declined in the last decade, from 82 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in 2018.

Picture of change

“This report is an important reference for anyone who wants to understand where the legal profession came from and where it stands today,” ABA president Bob Carlson said. The report was compiled by the ABA media relations & strategic communications division using data from a variety of ABA sections, divisions, committees and commissions, as well as from the federal government and nonprofit groups that work closely with the legal profession. It will be updated annually. The report, a 100-page compendium of statistics and trends, includes sections on demographics, wages, law schools and law students, federal judges, pro bono work, women in the profession, legal technology, lawyer well-being and lawyer discipline. The report can be found here.