“I was under the impression that there were as many people in law schools as there are lawyers.”
This factoid has been around for a long time. As long ago as 1996 an article (pdf) could open by saying that
we are often reminded of the startling fact that there are more students currently studying to be lawyers than there are lawyers practising law,
though it did not actually examine whether that assumption was true.
Working out how many law students we have is not straightforward. The published student statistics report for law only in ‘load’, which means units of study coded as law. People who are not enrolled in law degrees do law subjects, eg commerce students take business law units. But with this caveat, in 2007 law units were equivalent to 24,979 full-time undergraduate students. Another way of estimating numbers is through the offers and acceptance data. In 2008, 5,672 persons accepted a place in a law course. But none of these numbers can account for JD programs, which are professional entry qualifications taught as postgraduate degrees (for which universities can charge full fees – expect to see these expand as the government’s ban on undergraduate full-fee places starts to bite).
While the precise number of law students is hard to calculate, none of these numbers are consistent with the proposition that law students outnumber lawyers. According to the 2006 census, 48,001 persons had jobs classified as ‘legal professionals’. Another 2,922 people with legal qualifications were working in another category that includes ‘court and legal clerks’; presumably many of them are articled clerks or doing other work that puts them on the path to a legal career.
While we do produce more law graduates than the legal profession requires, for would-be lawyers the job situation is not nearly as dire as the standard factoid suggests. On my census calculations, about 60% of people with legal qualifications who are in the labour force are working as legal professionals. Many others would not have intended to by lawyers (eg me) or are happily ex-lawyers (quite a few of my friends). They lessen the competition for legal jobs.