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Lawyers, Wannabes on the Rise

By Del Jones
USA TODAY

Question: How many lawyers does a slow economy produce?

Answer: More.

The number of lawyers in the USA exceeded 1 million for the first time in 2003. And the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in 2003 is near the record 152,242 set during the last recession, in 1991. The two-year record of 300,020 of 1990-91 stands an equally good chance of falling in 2002-03.

Will the additional lawyers find work? Most likely they will, because companies will continue to combat the fear of litigation, says Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of overlawyered.com.

A Business Roundtable survey of CEOs of the nation's largest companies this month said they were worried most about rising health care costs, but litigation costs were in second place; 24% cited those as their top economic pressure.

Lawyers say they are busy. Fifty-three percent say their greatest challenge is managing increased workloads, according to a November poll by the Affiliates, a lawyer and paralegal staffing service.

In another Affiliates survey in July, 52% of lawyers said their law firms or corporate legal departments expected to hire in the next 12 months, while 5% expected to cut jobs.

“This is going to be a record year for law firms,” says Brad Hildebrandt, chairman of Hildebrandt International, which provides management consulting services.

The legal consultants had projected 10% revenue growth and 9% profit growth for 2003, and they will “easily beat that,” Hildebrandt says. The legal profession isn't recession proof, he says, but when there's a downturn in mergers, there is an upturn in bankruptcies.

“Firms with litigation practices are busy. Product liability is busy,” Hildebrandt says.

The number of LSAT test takers in December won't be out until next month, but if it slightly exceeds 45,000, both the one-year and two-year records would fall.

Last December, 41,887 took the LSAT. The one-month record of 52,604 set in October 2002 fell this October when 53,701 took the test. Kaplan says students enrolled in its LSAT prep courses are up more than 40% since 2000. Although the economy is expanding, job growth has lagged, and a sluggish job market traditionally boosts law school attendance.

The one-year record of 99,327 law school applications set in 1991 will no doubt fall, although it's difficult to say if a record number of students are applying or if applicants are applying to more schools because law schools are able to be more selective, says Justin Serrano, executive director of Kaplan.

“The long-term trend is up, up, up,” says Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and editor of overlawyered.com.

Serrano says the recent trend is for those with advanced degrees — including masters of business, certified public accountants and medical doctors — to take the LSAT. He said Kaplan has seen a surge of medical doctors in an apparent attempt to gain knowledge of malpractice litigation.

Olson says the real cost to society is the drain on smart people out of other areas of the economy. Some of the greatest minds are “adding 300 words to a 1,000-word prescription drug warning,” he said.