Legal Secretary: A Dying Job? More Like an Aging Job

June 29, 2013 by Emsi Burning Glass

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On the cover of The Wall Street Journal’s Marketplace section Thursday was a story on the shrinking job opportunities for legal secretaries. The WSJ’s headline: “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job.”

A more accurate headline would have been: “Legal Secretary, an Aging Job” — and one that doesn’t really appear to be vanishing.

Yes, legal secretary jobs in the U.S. have declined 6% since their pre-recession peak. And sure, law offices are looking for ways to cut costs, while “technology as reduced the need for clerical staff to perform filing, input documents and other tasks,” the WSJ’s Jennifer Smith and Joe Palazzolo wrote. “As clients push back on rate increases, firms looking to boost profits are slashing expenses and hunting for greater efficiency.”

All this doesn’t portend a rosy future for the legal secretary profession. But it’s hardly a dying job. As with many other businesses, law offices will continue to need clerical and administrative staff in some form, and just consider the staggering number of older workers in the profession:

More than a quarter of the estimated 223,000-plus legal secretaries in the workforce (27.4%) are at least 55 years old. Another 27% are 45-54 years old. This means we can expect to see a flurry of retirements in the next five to 10 years in a profession in which more than 9 out of 10 workers are females.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, as we highlighted earlier, estimates the U.S. will have 55 million job openings through 2020 — and 31 million of these will be replacement jobs (baby-boomer retirements, etc.). Legal secretaries are a prime example of an occupation where the preponderance of job openings will come from replacements, not new job growth. This is a key, often overlooked dimension of the labor market, and EMSI captures this movement in our annual openings estimates for more than 700 occupations.

So though legal secretaries are projected to add just 1,042 jobs from 2013-2014, a 0.5% increase, we estimate 4,347 openings (new jobs plus replacement jobs) in the occupation. This means more than three-quarters of the job openings (3,305) are the result of retirements and other turnover.

The Legal Industry

As dire as the WSJ made the outlook for legal secretaries look, the reality is the field is doing about the same as the legal services industry as a whole: not great but on the rebound.

Offices of lawyers, an industry with an estimated 1.25 million jobs, has declined 4.7% since the start of the recession, and it only started to rebound (like legal secretaries) in 2012.

The third most-common occupation that staffs this industry is legal secretaries, with just under 180,000 people employed (14.4% of the offices of lawyers industry). Lawyers, which account for 41.4% of the industry, have dipped 3.8% (a loss of 30,000 jobs) since 2007. Paralegals, 14.8% of the industry, are the only exception: they were barely affected by the recession and have grown 4.2% since 2007. And legal support workers, as shown below, have the most interesting trend line. This miscellaneous category spiked during the recession and tanked in 2011.

State Breakdown for Legal Secretaries

Only a few states have seen substantial increases in their legal secretary workforces since 2009, when the recovery started. Notable job increases have occurred in Colorado (7%), Oklahoma (6%), Florida (5%), Texas (5%), and North Carolina (4%). Two smaller states, like North Dakota and Utah, have seen the biggest jumps, at 13% and 10%, respectively.

But 38 states and Washington, D.C. have smaller legal secretary workforces than they did at the start of 2009. Aside from New Jersey, D.C. has the most total job losses; it has shrunk 9%, a loss of 525 jobs. Still, even D.C. has a fair share of estimated job openings given all the job loss.

Notes: The following map shows percentage job growth for legal secretary jobs from 2009-2013 by state. EMSI’s 2013 job totals are estimates based on historic and projected state and federal data.

State Name2009 Jobs2013 Jobs% Growth2013 Annual OpeningsMedian Hourly EarningsNorth Dakota46352113%12$16.04Utah1,5371,68710%81$16.30Colorado3,0753,3027%119$25.19Oklahoma2,8663,0356%76$14.70Florida14,11614,8875%547$18.66Texas13,24313,8715%361$20.76North Carolina2,2032,2844%77$21.15Nevada2,5832,6282%82$21.05Washington3,5883,6151%80$20.66Illinois12,30612,3931%259$20.69Delaware1,0061,0110%27$25.20Nebraska1,3661,3720%21$17.16Kansas1,6831,672-1%26$14.28Massachusetts5,6885,627-1%76$22.62Rhode Island1,0691,054-1%23$20.44South Dakota769758-1%14$11.89Michigan5,6755,591-1%86$19.28Minnesota4,4654,398-2%60$21.76Pennsylvania10,80910,619-2%143$20.39California30,80730,263-2%415$23.51Maryland3,2413,183-2%43$18.47West Virginia1,6401,609-2%31$16.16Indiana4,1514,071-2%59$15.54Montana753737-2%13$14.54New York20,72720,144-3%268$25.17Georgia5,4675,299-3%71$19.67Louisiana4,0253,901-3%59$17.00Arizona4,2914,151-3%198$20.14Iowa1,6721,612-4%23$16.77Kentucky3,9523,810-4%56$15.04Wyoming457440-4%13$17.45Oregon3,4273,283-4%95$19.46Missouri3,8233,662-4%74$18.26Wisconsin3,7263,556-5%54$18.15Tennessee1,9071,808-5%27$18.77New Mexico1,1441,083-5%19$16.51South Carolina2,8502,688-6%47$16.46Arkansas977919-6%14$15.57New Jersey10,80210,138-6%159$22.08Maine917858-6%12$17.27Virginia3,6363,399-7%83$21.08Connecticut2,4032,243-7%30$20.84Ohio7,4376,924-7%93$19.16Idaho842783-7%19$16.44Alaska453420-7%6$20.87Vermont236217-8%3$17.20Alabama3,8963,567-8%86$16.06Hawaii875798-9%11$21.84District of Columbia5,9285,403-9%72$31.89Mississippi1,1731,068-9%14$18.92New Hampshire772701-9%9$19.61Total226,919223,059-2%4,347$20.79Source: QCEW Employees, Non-QCEW Employees & Self-Employed - EMSI 2013.2 Class of Worker

Data shown in this post comes from Analyst, EMSI’s web-based labor market data and analysis tool. To look at legal jobs in your region or for more information on EMSI, contact Josh Wright ( Follow us on Twitter @DesktopEcon.