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Two out of three 2011 law school graduates did not get real legal jobs

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NALP has released preliminary employment statistics for the class of 2011 as of nine months after graduation. They are, unsurprisingly, terrible.

12% of 2011 graduates were completely unemployed in February 2012, and another three per cent had re-enrolled in further graduate study, which can be treated as the functional equivalent to post-law school unemployment. So the first takeaway from these numbers is the nearly 15% unemployment rate for people who got law degrees from ABA-accredited schools last year. This compares with an 8.2% overall national unemployment rate, which, to my surprise at least, is also the unemployment rate among 25 to 34 year-olds (see Table A-10). So getting a law degree correlates with a doubling of the risk that a young adult will be unemployed nine months after receiving it.

But of course this 85.6% “employment” rate includes every kind of job law graduates obtained: legal, non-legal, full-time, part-time, long-term, and temporary. Let’s work with this preliminary data to make an estimate regarding how many 2011 graduates of ABA law schools had real legal jobs nine months after graduation, with a real legal job defined as a full-time non-temporary paying position requiring a law degree.

We can begin by eliminating jobs for which a law degree was not required. 24% of employed law graduates fell into this category, including the large majority of the 18.1% of all graduates who reported being employed in “business” (For most law graduates getting a job in “business” is short hand for either a low-paying service sector job that the graduate could have gotten more easily before going to law school, or in a smaller number of cases a good job that the graduate was qualified for prior to getting a law degree – indeed often literally the same job the graduate left in order to get a law degree).

What about those graduates of the 2011 class who had a job for which a law degree was required? Note that only 60% of graduates were working full-time in a job requiring a law degree. (Since it appears the status of somewhere around 7% of graduates was unknown, and since those graduates surely had far worse outcomes than average, this suggests that perhaps 56% to 58% of graduates had full time legal jobs. 12% of all jobs, legal and non-legal, obtained by graduates were part-time). Now consider how many jobs in this category have to be tossed out if we are limiting ourselves to real legal jobs, even liberally defined. The 5% of all “jobs” funded by law schools themselves for their own graduates must be excluded, as should the 6% of all private practice jobs which consisted of graduates reduced to the desperate expedient of attempting the start a solo practice straight out of law school.

NALP has not yet reported what overall percentage of jobs were temporary — defined as being for a term of less than one year – but for the class of 2010 26.9% of all jobs obtained by graduates were defined as temporary (To be conservative I’m going to treat all judicial clerkships as full-time long-term legal jobs, even though many state court clerkships are one-year way stations on the road to legal unemployment). We do know that 7% of all jobs obtained by graduates were reported as both part time and temporary.

Then we have the always tricky category of jobs with law firms of two to ten attorneys. A remarkable 42.9% of all graduates who obtained jobs in private practice (49.5% of all graduates went into private practice) were listed in this category. Many of these positions are of course real, if generally low-paying, associate jobs with established several-lawyer firms. But some are of a much more tenuous nature, including transient law clerk positions with solo practitioners, eat what you kill arrangements, in which people are given office space in return for a percentage of whatever they manage to bill, and basically fictional “law firms” consisting of two or three graduates banding together in a last-ditch attempt to avoid formal unemployment. But let’s be optimistic and assume that 80% of new graduates who were reported as obtaining jobs with firms of two to ten lawyers were in fact getting real legal jobs, liberally defined.

Thus once we exclude jobs that don’t require law degrees, law school-funded jobs, other temporary jobs, and part time jobs, and then make a generous estimate of how many private practice positions with very small firms were real legal jobs, the numbers look like this:

60% of all graduates whose employment status was known were in full-time jobs requiring a law degree.

Minus the 4% of all graduates in law school-funded temporary jobs.

Minus the approximately 15% of all graduates in temporary (less than one year) legal positions other than law school-funded jobs.

Minus an estimated 4.25% of all graduates in fictional “firm” jobs.

Minus the 3% of all graduates working as solo practitioners.

This leaves us with 33.75% of all 2011 ABA law school graduates in real legal jobs nine months after graduation.

This is, in my view, a conservative estimate of the scope of the disaster that has overtaken America’s law school graduates. It counts almost all positions with law firms and with government agencies as real legal jobs, even though we know some of these “jobs” are actually one-year unpaid internships. (See for example these). Indeed it counts whole classes of time-limited jobs that are likely to leave graduates with no legal employment at their conclusion, such as most state judicial clerkships, as long-term rather than temporary employment. Most of all, it makes what by now must be considered the questionable assumption that law schools are reporting these numbers accurately, rather than misreporting them to their advantage.

Yet even this generous estimate of how many 2011 graduates of ABA-accredited law schools managed to get real legal jobs leads to the conclusion that two-thirds did not.

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