Amidst a troubled legal industry, the non-profit sector is thriving

A law graduate looking for work would be mistaken to overlook this growing area

Things haven’t been looking too good recently for lawyering. A new book, “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” by Steven J. Harper, has gotten a lot of attention for telling an inconvenient truth about law schools—that they are turning out twice as many lawyers each year as there are jobs for their graduates. Harper says the economics of law, particularly among the big corporate firms, simply isn’t producing new jobs. Citi Private Bank calculated that the demand for high-end legal services has fallen at a rate of 0.4 percent every year since 2008. It shows. The total employment level for the legal industry (that’s for all jobs, including paralegals, support staff and administrators) has dropped by 50,000 jobs in the past five years.  

It is no wonder, then, that the New York Times reports law school applications will be down 38 percent this year from 2010. College graduates are finally realizing that a law school education is not worth the cost, much less the crushing debt most would incur, if no legal jobs are available.  

While much of the legal world might be lamenting its future, I found no sign of despair this April at Georgetown Law School’s annual conference on Representing & Managing Tax Exempt Organizations. Its organizer, assistant dean Larry Center, told me that this year’s conference had the largest attendance in its 30-year history. This year, for the first time, it had attendees from all 50 states and three countries that weren’t Canada or Mexico.  

Such a turnout is another indicator that the non-profit sector is a growth area. According to the Urban Institute, there are 2.3 million non-profit organizations in the U.S., of which 1.6 million are registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The sector has grown by 24 percent in a decade. Many of the organizations are small and without staff, but the sector includes hospitals, universities, private foundations, churches, trade associations and labor unions. It controls about $4.49 trillion in assets, of which $2.71 trillion is controlled by charitable organizations. All in all, non-profits employ 10.5 million Americans, making the sector the third largest of all U.S. industries. 

It also happens to be one of the fastest growing job sectors, having posted a record job growth rate of 2.1 percent from 2000 to 2010 despite two recessions, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. More significantly, the study noted that during the worst of the recent recession, non-profit jobs increased by 1.9 percent annually while for-profit businesses averaged job losses of 3.7 percent per year.

I’m not an economist or a social scientist, but looking at these trends, I would adopt Willie Sutton’s approach to legal job hunting. He was asked why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The non-profit sector is where the money is these days, or at least enough of it to support growth. And non-profits need lawyers. Just add up the attorneys who work for every church, trade association, hospital, college, labor union, etc. And that is not including the lawyers in private firms whose practices depend largely on doing work for charities and other non-profits. Then you have to add the many government lawyers in state attorney general offices, the IRS and other agencies who owe their jobs to the very existence of the sector.  

A law graduate looking for work would make a mistake by overlooking one of the few long-term growth areas of our economy—the non-profits.  

Bruce D. Collins is corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN, based in Washington, D.C. Email him at collins@c-span.org.

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