Note All figures on this page include jobs from school-funded job programs, which exploded in popularity following the Great Recession.
The percentage of a graduating class employed in jobs that require a law license is sensitive to two distinct supply figures: total graduates and total available jobs. For example, if graduates increase and the number of jobs stays the same, the percentage will decline. The percentage of graduates obtaining full-time entry-level legal jobs was quite high in the 1980s, peaking at 84.5% in 1988. The average rate in the mid to late 1980s was 82.9%. The next two decades (90s and 00s) each had an average that was ten points lower, 73.7% in the 90s and 71.4% in the 00s. This decade, so far, the average is 61.7%—an additional ten points lower.
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These shifts appear to reflect enrollment management decisions by law schools instead of demand for new lawyers. Between 1976 and 2000, law schools steadily enrolled between ~40,000 and ~44,000 new students each year. From 1976 to 1987, the average was 40,973. From 1988 to 2000, the average was 43,497—a little over 6% higher. But between 2000 and 2002, law schools increased first-year enrollment 11.2%. In subsequent years, enrollment steadily creeped up, with minor ebbs and flows, until peaking in 2010 at 52,404. The number of jobs, on the other hand, has been far steadier. Between 1985 and 2010, the number of new full-time law jobs each year generally stayed between 27,000 and 30,000. Increased enrollment and a steady number of jobs spell a lower employment rate for law school graduates. Although the legal employment rate has improved, the entry-level market remains structurally weak. Between 2013 and 2016, fewer graduates obtained full-time lawyer jobs each year. In 2017, the number of these jobs increased by several dozen.
While the market for all full-time entry-level legal jobs peaked in 2007, the peak at large law firms was one year later. Jobs with large law firms (>100 attorneys) pay the highest salaries, which is increasingly important for servicing even below average debt levels.
With the exception of 2011, the number of jobs at large firms has remained steady around 6,000 since 2010. Not all jobs at large firms are the same, however. As many as 15% of these jobs in 2014 and 2015 were staff attorneys, rather than associates. (NALP did not collect data on this prior to 2014.) Staff attorneys make half or less of what associates make without even accounting for benefit differentials. In 2016, the number of staff attorneys was half of the number in 2014 and 2015.
Jobs at large law firms are not spread evenly across all law schools. Graduates from the top 20 law schools (by placement in large firms) consistently obtain more than half of these jobs. In 2017, on the other hand, 114 schools (56.2%) had less than 10% of their graduating class employed at by large law firm (in any job), with a majority of these schools having less than 5%.
|Year||Top 20 Schools|
Note Law firm job figures include any job at a law firm, regardless of responsibilities or classification, such as long or short term job and full or part time.
About the Data
Graduate job outcome data from 2011 and later come from the American Bar Association. Data prior to 2011 come from the National Association of Law Placement.