How Many Lawyers Are There?

By: Erin Delmore, Marisa M. Kashino

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How many lawyers are there in Washington? It’s a simple question with an answer that’s anything but.

The common estimate is 80,000—almost twice the number in all of France. Yet it’s not clear where this number comes from or why legal experts in Washington so readily cite it.

We set out to nail down the actual number of lawyers who work here and quickly learned one reason people rely on the 80,000 figure: It’s not easy finding a more exact one. The District of Columbia Bar—which claims 91,685 members—defines the metropolitan area broadly to include all of Maryland as well as Virginia down to the Quantico Marine Corps Base.

State and county bar associations, legal professional organizations, law libraries, and other sources couldn’t provide a precise tally—or a plausible way to generate one.

So here’s our own methodology:

The DC Bar provided a breakdown of its membership: As of October 31, of the bar’s 91,685 members, 67,407 are actively practicing law and 48,638 are actively practicing in the Washington area. That number doesn’t count people who have a law degree but aren’t practicing law—a very tough number to track.

Then consider that the thousands of lawyers working in the federal government don’t have to be members of the DC Bar and thus aren’t necessarily included in the DC Bar’s figures. The Office of Personnel Management was able to tell us the number of practicing lawyers in all executive departments and agencies across the country: 31,797. Most of those—though certainly not all—work in Washington. OPM’s figure doesn’t include the legislative branch (all congressional staffers, for instance) or the judicial branch (Supreme Court justices, for instance) and doesn’t include people in government who hold a law degree but aren’t classified as lawyers. Barack Obama, for one.

Combining those figures—the DC Bar’s local active membership and OPM’s figure—equals 80,435 attorneys.

However, the DC Bar reports that 11,596 of its members are government lawyers—potentially counting them twice. If we remove those, the low-end estimate appears to be that there are 68,839 Washington lawyers.

But what about Virginia and Maryland? The fact that attorneys here can live and/or work in one of three places and still be counted as Washington lawyers is the biggest challenge in adding them all up. To complicate matters further, many lawyers are members of the bar in more than one place, meaning they could be counted twice or even three times. No bar association—state or national—could ensure that its numbers didn’t overlap with others.

To avoid overcounting, we turned to the US Census Bureau, which counts lawyers by their home residence, for its figures. The bureau’s 2008 tallies show 32,253 lawyers in Maryland, 40,006 in Virginia, and a seemingly low DC lawyer population of 17,168 (though, because many lawyers who practice in DC live in the suburbs, this number is plausible). That combined total is 89,427.

The census total includes lawyers who practice in regions outside Washington; more precise county or city numbers weren’t available. However, that total at least gives us a high-end number—minus those who aren’t in the region plus the uncounted government lawyers (perhaps more than 10,000, which could put the total in the six figures).

Thus, we can estimate that there are 68,839 to 89,427 Washington lawyers. The average of those estimates is 79,133. In other words, 80,000 is a good guess after all.