At the height of the entry-level market in 2007, there were fewer than 30,000 full-time legal jobs taken by law school graduates. Still, law schools enrolled over 49,000 new students that year. The ratio of new students to new lawyers was over 1.6:1, and would increase to over 2:1 in 2010. In 2011, the ratio decreased below 2:1 again because schools enrolled fewer students. However, beginning in 2011 law schools began paying graduates to work jobs that are captured by the full-time legal job category. Discounting these jobs and law schools for the second year in a row enrolled about twice as many students as legal jobs.
The ratio has greatly improved over the past two years as law school enrollment has fallen. The ratio for both years is less than the ratio in 2007. Even after discounting for school-funded jobs, the ratio was about 1.5:1 in the most recent year.
Jobs with large law firms (101+ attorneys) pay the highest salaries, which is increasingly important for servicing even below average debt levels. The biglaw peak in 2008 declined by 44% within three years, to its low in 2011. Now, the ratio of new students to new biglaw lawyers is about 6.5:1. Hiring at the largest firms has certainly improved over the last two years, although part of the improvement is attributable to an increase in non-associate jobs at firms, e.g. staff attorney.
According to the BLS, there will be 196,500 new lawyer jobs between 2012 and 2022. These new jobs include all legal jobs, whether full-time or part-time, permanent or temporary. The ten-year prediction is 10% less than an estimate four years ago that projected 218,800 new lawyer jobs between 2010 and 2020. The ten-year prediction is 18% less than an estimate four years ago that projected 240,400 new lawyer jobs between 2008 and 2018.
The BLS labor economists base occupation predictions on econometric models, together with continuous monitoring of the workplace. The macroeconomic model predictions aim to reflect how many new entrants the economy will support in each occupation. These estimates account for economic growth, structural change, and a host of other variables.
Note that a few thousand foreign graduates—some recipients of U.S. LL.M.s, some trained abroad—and graduates of non-ABA accredited schools vie for these jobs. As such, ABA-approved school graduates have more competition than just each other.
The BLS projections won't be exactly right. The economy may support somewhat more than 196,500 lawyers this decade, or perhaps somewhat less. As the legal profession undergoes structural changes, the depth of the recent recession, the slow growth in overall employment, and continued unrest in the world economy will impact whether the BLS's current projections match future law school graduates' realities.