Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for legal work is expected to continue as individuals, businesses, and all levels of government require legal services in many areas.

Despite this need for legal services, more price competition over the next decade may lead law firms to rethink their project staffing in order to reduce costs to clients. Clients are expected to cut back on legal expenses by demanding less expensive rates and scrutinizing invoices. Work that was previously assigned to lawyers, such as document review, may now be given to paralegals and legal assistants. Also, some routine legal work may be outsourced to other, lower cost legal providers located overseas.

Although law firms will continue to be among the largest employers of lawyers, many large corporations are increasing their in-house legal departments in order to cut costs. For many companies, the high cost of hiring outside counsel lawyers and their support staffs makes it more economical to shift work to their in-house legal department. This shift will lead to an increase in the demand for lawyers in a variety of settings, such as financial and insurance firms, consulting firms, and healthcare providers.

The federal government is likely to continue to need lawyers to prosecute or defend civil cases on behalf of the United States, prosecute criminal cases brought by the federal government, and collect money owed to the federal government. However, budgetary constraints at all levels of government, especially the federal level, will likely moderate employment growth.

Job Prospects

Despite the projected growth in new jobs for lawyers, competition for jobs should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available. According to the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey, a compilation of data collected by state bar associations or licensing agencies, there were over 1.3 million resident and active attorneys as of December 2016. Some law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions turn to temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. These firms allow companies to hire lawyers as needed and permit beginning lawyers to develop practical experience. Many other law school graduates and licensed lawyers end up finding work in other occupations or industries due to the difficulty in finding jobs with traditional legal employers.

Because of the strong competition, a law school graduate’s willingness to relocate and his or her practical experiences are becoming more important. However, to be licensed in another state, a lawyer may have to take an additional state bar examination.

While many new lawyers are hired each year by law firms, this does not guarantee stable employment in the profession.  Newly hired lawyers, known as associates, must either advance within their firm or may be forced to leave, a practice commonly known as “up or out.” Those who leave law firms may find work as in-house counsel with companies, with government agencies, or as self-employed lawyers. 

Occupational TitleSOC CodeEmployment, 2016Projected Employment, 2026Change, 2016-26Employment by Industry
PercentNumeric
Lawyers23-1011792,500857,500865,000
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program