Courtesy of Jackson lawyer Cliff Johnson is this tort case filings graph used in a presentation Monday night by Cliff, Judge Kent McDaniel and Vicky Lowery to the Inns of Court. The graph shows tort filings in Mississippi from 1994 – 2012.

Tort filings peaked in 2002 with 10,617 tort cases filed in state court in Mississippi. By 2012, that number was down to 3,551 and still trending down. You can’t tell from the graph when tort filings were last at 2012 levels. The number of filings in 1994 was 5,056. It was some time before 1994.

Total civil filings are also down substantially–37% since 2002. The reason that total civil filings are not down as much as tort filings is that civil filings includes things like debt collection actions that have almost nothing to do with the litigation climate in the state and provide few jobs for lawyers.

The graph explains a lot about the pain felt in the legal profession over the last eight years or so. It was comparably easy for law firms to grow and lawyers to flourish in their own practices from pre-1994 through 2002 because there were twice as many tort cases filed per year compared to today.

But it wasn’t sustainable. It was a bubble. The bubble burst around 2002 and we’ve been in a decline ever since.

We needed a lot more lawyers in Mississippi in 2002 to work all the cases than we do today. That has resulted in a shaking out on both the plaintiff and defense side with contractions in both sides of the litigation bar.

It will be interesting to see how the filings look over the next five years covering 2013 – 2017. My guess is that tort filings will continue to decline in 2013 – 2014 and stabilize around 3,000 per year.

Also, keep in mind that those 3,000 cases are generally worth less than cases in the 1990’s when there were twice as many cases being filed. So the dollar impact of only 3,000 filings on the legal economy is greater than the 50% that the raw filing numbers would first suggest.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t still have an over-supply of lawyers. The number of lawyers in the state has risen over this time period. The excess lawyer issue is an issue nationwide that will take a decade or more to resolve.

Of course, these numbers only confirm what we’ve known for years. It’s harder to make a living practicing law in Mississippi than it used to be. You still can. It’s just not easy anymore.

There are plenty of good lawyers who have been forced out of private practice in the last eight years or so. It’s not necessarily a reflection on those lawyers’ skills other than rainmaking. Luck and chance have a lot to say about who the survivors are in private practice. We can feel more secure by pretending otherwise, but that’s the way it has shaken out.