ANALYSIS: 2021 Ends With Legal Employment Up, Unemployment Down

While legal employment failed to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the picture did improve throughout the year, finishing on a positive note in the fourth quarter despite the headwinds of the rapidly spreading omicron variant of Covid-19.

In the fourth quarter, legal employment climbed to its highest levels of 2021 (1.85 million), representing an increase of 67,000 jobs since Q1 and inching closer to the pre-pandemic employment levels of fourth-quarter 2019 (2.01 million). Increases in the employment ranks of lawyers, paralegals, and legal support workers fueled overall strong growth in the fourth quarter—the first quarter of the pandemic where all three of these groups gained employment in the same quarter.

Paralegals have regained ground the fastest, continuing a three-quarter ascent to 483,000 (up from Q3’s 458,000). At the same time, Q4 lawyer employment neared its 2021 high, set in Q1 (1.09 million versus 1.1 million, respectively), and legal support roles rebounded from 66,000 in Q3 to 73,000 in Q4.

The increases in overall legal employment levels were coupled with three consecutive quarterly declines in unemployment rates for men and women as well as overall, settling at Q4 rates of 0.56%, 1.6%, and 1.1%, respectively.

The unemployment rates for men in legal occupations were lower in the fourth quarter of 2021 than in pre-pandemic fourth-quarter 2019 (0.9%), but they were slightly higher for women (1.33% in Q4 2019).

While overall unemployment rates are low, the data show that men and women may face different realities when searching for legal positions, with women likely facing more challenges finding or holding onto a legal job than their male counterparts.

The overall boost in employment and lower levels of unemployment may indicate that the omicron variant is not having as large of an impact on legal staffing as some may have expected. Additionally, BLS teleworking figures show that the legal field is not rapidly moving from in-office work to teleworking, even as many law firms (and other employers) are pushing back return to office (RTO) dates.

In fact, 29.5% of the legal field was teleworking as of December 2021—representing a gain of only 1.9% from November 2021 (27.6%) but still lower than October 2021 (32.6%) and much lower than the pandemic high point in February 2021 (58.2%)—despite the Omicron variant’s infection levels creating the largest infection surge of the pandemic.

This relatively steady level of telework may indicate that law firm and legal corporate department leadership believe the pandemic is in a different place in 2021 than 2020, with vaccines and new Covid treatments to fend off some of the worst virus impacts. But, considering that the omicron variant only appeared in late November 2021, its overall impacts may not be seen until later in 2022.

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