The legal services sector added jobs for the third year in a row in 2017, but a deeper analysis shows it is far from getting back to the record high employment levels reached in the mid-2000s amid a shift in how law firms are doing business following changes in technology and client demand.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics last week finalized its employment numbers for December, placing the number of people working in the U.S. legal sector at approximately 1,137,100 at the end of 2017. The BLS classifies the legal services sector as establishments of legal practitioners such as lawyers and paralegals, as well as other roles including notary publics, trial consultants and title companies.
But the addition of 5,300 jobs between December 2016 and December 2017 does not paint the entire picture of the legal employment landscape, which has suffered major losses over the past decade.
At its all-time high in May 2007, the industry's job total sat at 1,179,500, 3.6 percent higher than where it stood at the end of 2017. But between December 2006 and December 2009 — during the Great Recession — the industry as a whole lost more than 66,000 jobs. Since that time, the sector has struggled to fight its way back to pre-recession levels.
This failure to recover is atypical for a workforce that consistently bounced back to become stronger than ever following economic downturns in previous decades, including in the 1980s and 1990s. Some experts see this as a shift in the relationship between the legal industry and the clients it serves.
"A lot of companies are trying to bring legal spend in-house where they can control it more effectively rather than directing all of it to outside law firms," said Jon Lindsey, New York founding partner of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.