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Why have job prospects for law graduates improved over the past five years?

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The big news in the law school world is that applications are way up, although they remain well below their peak in the aughts, before certain irresponsible troublemakers started suggesting that a law degree might not be the world’s greatest investment, given skyrocketing attendance costs and a contracting job market.

Applications from people with very high law school admissions test (LSAT) scores are up even more, leading to a controversy about whether the test, which was given in a shorter revamped form during the pandemic, might be easier than its predecessors. (I have no expertise regarding technical questions of standardized testing, which perhaps somewhat counterintuitively leads me to have no opinion on the matter).

Naturally, in the corporatized world of American higher education in general and legal education in particular, increased demand for law school spots means that many an administrator, whether in the law schools themselves or up campus, is going to be tempted to increase class size, especially given that employment outcomes, while still not good overall, are markedly better than they were in the first half of the previous decade. This would be extremely irresponsible. I spoke yesterday to Stephanie Ward at the ABA Journal about this:

“A really critical point here is that the improved job outcomes for law school graduates are very clearly 100% a product of reduced class size. These reductions took place involuntarily because of the very sharp decline in the number of people applying to law school,” says Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. In 2012, he wrote a University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform article titled The Crisis of the American Law School.

“As a matter of social responsibility, I would hope that law schools would look at considerations other than revenue maximization. The great temptation is, ‘We’ve got a lot of demand, let’s increase the class size and not worry about job outcomes.’ But while the job numbers have improved, they’re still not that good,” Campos says.

Here are some numbers.

Percentage of ABA approved law school graduates with jobs as lawyers — defined as full-time employment slated to last at least a year and requiring bar admission, nine or ten months after graduation (Note that this definition includes judicial clerkships, that usually last one year. It also includes those graduates who hang out a shingle as sole practitioners).

2011: 56.0

2012: 58.0

2013: 58.5

2014: 61.4

2015: 62.1

Five-class average: 59.2%

2016: 63.8

2017: 68.5

2018: 70.3

2019: 73.2

2020: 69.9

Five-year class average: 69.1%

That looks like a recovering, though still disturbingly weak, market for new lawyers.

But a closer look reveals that the recovery is completely — indeed more than completely — a product of contraction on the supply side.

Average number of graduates securing jobs as lawyers annually:

2011-2015: 26,179

2016-2020: 24,112

This represents an eight percent decline between the first and second halves of the decade.

The improved employment outcomes are product of the fact that the average size of law school graduating classes decreased by 21% between these two periods.

Among other things, these stats belie the claim, much touted by law school propagandists, that “you can do anything with a law degree.” This of course is true — but you can do every single one of those things without a law degree as well, except for one: practice law.

Thus it turns out that, when law school class sizes contract, all of the improved employment prospects this produces for law graduates are reflected in the employment statistics for graduates who secure jobs as lawyers, because people go to law school to get those jobs and not others, with the exception of the five Harvard Law School graduates every year who go work for MBB, along with whatever the hell it is that Yale Law School graduates do after they escape the eroticized space they’ve spent the last three years and $300,000 inhabiting.

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