20 November 2012

Legal Job Market Could Be Better

* Depending on which dataset is used, of the 1.4 million law graduates of the last 40-years, 200,000-600,000 are not working as attorneys. [This is 14%-43%.]
* Over the last 25 years this percentage has averaged 68%, meaning 1 out of every 3 graduates couldn't find [full-time, JD-required jobs excluding those who start their own practice] legal work. . . . [This percentage] it is not correlated with bar passage rates. . .
* 16% of graduates of schools accredited before 1975 found employment in firms of 100 attorneys, while under 4% of graduates of schools accredited after this time did.
* Income inequality for starting salaries has been widening dramatically. Over the last 16 years, the 75th percentile real starting salary has increased 73%, while the 25th percentile real starting salary has increased just 11% (almost all of it occurring before 2000).

From here via here.

It is not unfair to guess that a large share of the roughly one in three law school graduates who are not currently working as attorneys are mostly people who never passsed the bar exam, people who passed the bar exam but who did not find full time employment as a lawyer immediately after graduating from law school, women who have left the work force (possibly temporarily) to raise young children, and early retirees.  The percentage of lawyers who didn't find full time work as lawyers immediately after law school and the percentage of people with law degrees who do not currently practice law are similar.

This data set is yet another showing that bifurcation of the legal profession economically.

Law School Is Unpopular At The Moment

Undergraduates considering practicing law (particularly the most academically able undergraduates) are aware of these facts and have reacted accordingly, although at a roughly one year's delay relative to the job market for new associate attorneys triggered by changes in large law firm hiring and retention practices in response to the financial crisis.

The number of people taking the LSAT that is necessary to apply to law school has declined for every available examination date (compared to the corresponding date a year earlier) since October 2010. The number of LSAT takers last month "was down 37.8% from 2009's all-time peak. There have not been this few LSAT test-takers in October since 1999."  (I personally beat the rush and took the bar exam in the October of 1991.)

Law schools have also reacted to declining undergraduate interest in going to law school, although with an even greater delay from the underlying drivers of this trend.

A majority of U.S. law schools have cut the size of their entering classes this year (although the drop in the size of the applicant pools is much greater than the drop in the number of available 1L spots at U.S. law schools).

Advice For Prospective Law Students

If you are an academically strong undergraduate student, aim high in your choice of law schools to apply to, since you may be able to gain admission to top law schools you wouldn't have had a realistic shot at a few years ago.

Even in this tough job market for new law school graduates, earning a law degree from a top law school with a good class rank, and then passing the bar exam is one of the more reliable ways for a young person with strong academic abilities to enter the upper middle class compared to the alternatives.

And, if you are an academically marginal undergraduate student or recent college graduate, and underperformed relative to your abilities as a college student, and you really wants to become a lawyer, there has never been a better time to sign up for the LSATs and to apply for law school (with an emphasis on the least selective law schools, many of them newly accredited).  The selectivity of U.S. law schools is lower than it has been for a very long time.

Also, however bad the job market for new lawyers may be now, it will probably be better three years from now, when you graduate from law school, than it is right now.

Of course, if you can't pass the bar exam, it isn't worth your trouble, so if your poor undergraduate record is an accurate reflection of your academic abilities, law is not the right career choice for you. Historically, the typical student right on the margin between being able to someday pass the bar exam and never passing the bar exam has had roughly a 2.8 undergraduate GPA and 149 LSAT score (which is slightly below that undergraduate GPA and LSAT of the average LSAT test taker, a group of people whose average academic abilities are somewhat better than those of the average college graduate). Basically, the typical bar exam is set at a level that can be passed by most college graduates in the top half of college graduates academically, but not by college graduates who are significantly less academically able than the average college graduate.

If your academic abilities, setting aside some temporary factor that caused you to underperform on either measure of academic ability, are below this level, law school is a bad choice for you. If you graduate from law school without passing the bar exam, you will have little to show for it but some very large student loans that can't be discharged in bankruptcy, an income that won't support those student loan payments, and a worthless (in the job market) diploma to hang on the wall in your den.

Likewise, if you are an academically mediocre student who does manage to pass the bar exam, you have probably found yourself a ticket to a middle class life if you have good work habits and social skills (very few people with law degrees, even at the economic low end of the profession, have been unemployed even during the "Great Recession"), but not to the affluence, prestige and power of your most academically able peers. Aim for a career in criminal law or in a small law firm serving mostly the needs of working class and middle class people rather than affluent individuals, businesses or government agencies.

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