Lincoln–Beginning of Too Many Lawyers?

You’ve probably seen or heard of the new film, Lincoln.  If not, go.  It’s a great movie with wonderful attention to detail and, like all Spielberg films, a great plot.  As you probably know, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, mostly self-taught.  However, he had the good luck to become a lawyer at a time in our country when the business of lawyering was about to explode.

In the century after the Civil War, lawyers created a boom industry.  How?

Of course, at the centers of major cities and capitals, there was always work for lawyers involved with the government or any businesses that are regulated by government.  To the newly-developing west, lawyers were employed by eastern investors to be their counselors and local people to watch-out for their interests.   In Lincoln’s case, it was railroads and patents.

Starting before the Civil War the railroads pushed west all over the country.  There was a need to settle real estate claims, injury claims, and other details about the new industry.  Lincoln, like many lawyers, worked both for and against the railroads, depending on the client.  The railroads also created new machines and inventions that needed patents that had to be protected.  Lincoln also worked on those cases.

But even after the Civil War, as the economy expanded, lawyers multiplied by the thousands.

When the United States became a world power in the early 20th century, our economy continued to expand which increased the need for lawyers.  The New Deal and the creation of new federal laws and agencies really gave a boost to lawyers and added to their numbers.

When Lincoln became a lawyer, most people learned law by working for an established lawyer.  By the late 1800’s new rules required that people start getting more formal education and law schools began to grow.  Then attorney bar associations required that people had to pass a bar exam before they could be admitted to practice law.  It made the business of law a monopoly.

Still, the numbers didn’t explode until the late 2oth century.  In 1960, there was a lawyer for every 627 people.  By 1988  there was a lawyer for every 399 people.  By 2010, there was a lawyer for every 200 people.  Projections show that if the law schools keep churning-out lawyers, by 2023 there will be more lawyers in the U.S. than people!

Since the Great Recession of 2008, the job market for lawyers has crashed.  Will it revive?  I’m doubtful and really think we’ve reached a saturation point for the number of lawyers in our country.

If you’re interested, there is a scholarly article from the Fordham Law Review that explores this phenomenon at:

The tragedy is that the law schools still keep the lawyers coming–all those young people with huge debts and no jobs!  What will they do and when will they realize the business of law has probably stopped growing?



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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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