1) The long term rise in the number of lawyers in the United States; and
2) The continuing decrease in the amount of crimes committed in the United States.
Together, these trends have drastically reduced the number of potential clients available for young criminal defense lawyers. Keep this in mind when old criminal defense lawyers who hung out their shingles during the golden age of criminal defense (1968-1992) make fun of the young lawyers trying to do the same thing in today's much harsher environment
Since 1969, the per capita rate of licensed lawyers in the US has increased 150%, from 1.6 per 1,000 people to 4.0:
For a while—and purely by coincidence I'm sure—the proliferation of lawyers was accompanied by a proliferation of crime. Crime exploded from 1960 to 1980, dropped off for a few years, and then peaked again in 1991. Since then, however, the crime rate has plummeted, and the major crime rate is now lower than it was when the lawyer-boom began in 1969. The following chart shows the rate of the FBI's "Part I" crimes (a combination of the violent crimes and the major property crimes):
Major Crimes Per Lawyer: Dropping like a Brick
Put the two trends together, and here is what you get:
Between 1968 and 1991, there were an average of 22 major crimes per licensed lawyer. In 2012, that number was down to 8, and there is every reason to believe that the bottom is still dropping out. In the 70s and 80s, criminal lawyers could afford to be choosy, and the lack of competition meant there was little need to compete on price. Times have changed.
Arrests Per Lawyer Dropping Too
One objection to the graphs above is that the crime rate is not strictly speaking relevant to the number of potential clients for lawyers; what matters is the arrest rate. The arrest data I could find only goes back to 1980, but that's far enough to tell the same story. Here are the number of arrests for major crimes per lawyer since 1980:
Between 1980 and 1991, there were an average of 3.9 arrests per lawyer. By 2012, that had dropped had dropped 56% to 1.7. Roughly speaking, in the 80s there were twice as many arrests for major crimes per lawyer as there have been in the 21st century.
Expanding the data to look at all arrests again paints the same general picture:
In this graph you can see the effect of the drug war, which kept the overall arrest rate from dropping too steeply until 1997. Still, from peak to trough, there are twice as many lawyers per arrest than there was just a generation ago.
Obviously, it's a very good thing that there's so much less crime now than there used to be. But criminal defense has historically been one of the main practice areas available to solo practitioners and small firms, even for lawyers just graduating from law school. That opportunity likely no longer exists, as the older, established criminal defense lawyers now snap up the vast majority of the much scarcer work.
This dynamic is exacerbated by the demographic shift in the legal profession. In 1980, a full 50% of lawyers were under 40. By 2005, only 26% of lawyers were under 40, and the median lawyer age was up to 49. There are a lot more experienced lawyers than there used to be, and given the nature of legal services older lawyers have a big competitive advantage.
A Fiercer Market
Being a lawyer has, undoubtedly, always been difficult, and it always took hard work to succeed. But it takes more hard work and more luck than it used to, at least for young lawyers who didn't graduate from top schools or at the top of their classes. So it's a bit ridiculous when the old-timers make fun of the recent law grads as the "slackoisie" without acknowledging the demographic and social factors that made things so much easier for them—particularly when the market for legal services used to be significantly bigger precisely because those baby boomers were so, so much more likely to be criminals.