Part of our October series on Jobs & The Economy, featuring written op-ed pieces and Q&As with Delaware’s business, labor and government leaders.
Shakespeare buffs will recognize that the above title is the first part of a quote from Henry VI (Part 2) that ends with “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Businessmen and other lawyer-haters know the quote by heart, even if they couldn’t quote any other passage by the Bard of Avon. Actually, anti-lawyer violence is not necessary to reduce a Dickensian “surplus population” of barristers. The economy is doing a fine job of it, thank you very much, and it’s aided and abetted by the law schools.
In late June, Catherine Rampell of NYTimes.com authored a short piece called “The Lawyer Surplus, State by State.” The article contained some eye-opening statistics, based upon a consulting firm’s econometric research. Consider: in 2009, more than twice as many people (53,508) passed state bar exams than there were job openings for lawyers (26,239). Consider further: every state but two – Wisconsin and Nebraska – is producing more lawyers than it needs. The District of Columbia actually has a shortage, but that’s another story. Conversely, megastates California and New York have huge surpluses.
According to the study, Delaware is relatively well off. It too produces a surfeit of attorneys, with 141 successful bar takers in 2009 versus projected annual job openings of just 116 for the next five years. Put differently, that’s 25 more lawyers produced per year than needed. On the bright side, Delaware is tied with Alaska for the second- lowest annual surplus number among the 48 states with a statistical surplus. Only skinflinty Vermont has a smaller surplus, with four extra lawyers annually.
On an even more positive note, the median hourly wage of a Delaware lawyer is $60.67 – the highest of any state in the country. Only that political and regulatory mecca, Washington D.C., pays more simoleons to its shysters. Delaware’s relative success is probably due to the small size of its bar and the relative prosperity of its corporate-based legal economy.
Obviously, it’s possible to read too much into these numbers. The sputtering economy has not spared big Wilmington law firms: fewer stock offerings and other business deals translate into careful hiring decisions and smaller summer programs. Anecdotal evidence seems to support a thesis that a relatively healthy corporate and litigation practice is at least partly offset by a stagnant bankruptcy caseload, and vice versa. And most Delaware attorneys, like lawyers across the country, are either solo practitioners or members of small general-practice shops that face cutthroat competition for work.
I’ve always felt that, regardless of the “macro” state of the economy, there are too many mediocre lawyers and too few good ones. I’ve been fortunate to practice in a state with a nonpareil court system and a tradition of lawyerly excellence in my chosen field. However, the laws of supply and demand are inexorable, and out-of-work attorneys should think twice before coming here, lemming-like, in search of lucrative positions that may not exist.