Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the remarkably high number of graduates of the class of 2009 who failed to obtain jobs as lawyers. When confronted with data like this, law schools respond that the dismal job placement rate is a recent phenomenon, a product of the current recession, suggesting that things were fine before and all will be well once again when the legal market rebounds. It’s wrong to isolate on and condemn law schools, they say, for results that reflect a historically bad time for jobs across the economy.
The problem with this response is that it is not true.
While it is correct that the recession exacerbated matters, things were not fine before, as demonstrated by the following chart, plotting the year before the recession, 2007 (in red), alongside 2009 (in blue). Notice that at many law schools--including schools ranked in the top 100--twenty percent or more of graduates of the class of 2007 failed to obtain jobs as lawyers (nine months after graduation).
Although the overall placement rate in lawyer jobs was indeed higher in 2007, prior to the implosion of the legal market that nailed the class of 2009, the same basic pattern held: ninety percent or more of the students at top law schools landed lawyer jobs while a significant percentage of graduates at many schools outside the elite did not.
NALP data on rates of employment across law schools tells us that this pattern extends at least as far back as 2001 (a change in data collection prevents comparisons with earlier periods). Here are the percentages of graduates who obtained jobs as lawyers in those years : 2001 (68.3 percent); 2002 (67 percent); 2003 (65.5 percent); 2004 (65.1 percent); 2005 (66.7 percent); 2006 (68.3 percent); 2007 (70.7 percent); 2008 (67.2 percent); 2009 (62.5 percent). (Throughout these years law schools listed on their websites and US News profile employment rates ranging from the high eighty percent range to the high ninety percent range.)
On a fairly consistent basis, almost one third of law graduates in the past decade have not obtained jobs as lawyers, and the above chart suggests that this is disproportionately the case at the lower ranked law schools.
There is every reason to believe that graduates of lower ranked law schools, if they had the chance, would gladly take lawyer jobs in the same 90 percent range as occurs at elite schools. The results show, obviously, that their degrees do not put them in a strong position to land jobs as lawyers. And this will not change even if the legal market undergoes a miraculous recovery.
Law schools frequently assert—and have said so for decades—that graduates who do not obtain jobs as lawyers often successfully use their law degree to advance their careers in other ways, usually citing the examples of graduates who obtain jobs in accounting firms and as FBI agents. Even if that is true in a number of instances, it cannot account for the large numbers of graduates who annually fail to get lawyer jobs. (More than 95 percent of law graduates sit for the bar exam, a substantial commitment of time and money after graduation which indicates a desire to at least be eligible to work as a lawyer.) Perhaps twenty years ago, or as late as ten years ago, a law graduate who did not land a job as a lawyer might still have come out okay financially. But with the high level of debt carried by law graduates today--nearly one third will graduate with debt in excess of $120,000--that can no longer be asserted with blithe confidence.
Law schools wooing the next crop of incoming students will no doubt use the line that the employment situation is bad now because of the recession, but things will get better when the legal market turns around. And they will tell prospective students that three and a half years between now and their anticipated graduation is plenty of time for the job recovery to take place.
Don't buy it. There is no sign that the legal market will improve. And even if it does, at many law schools one-out-of three or one-out-of four graduates will not get jobs as lawyers.
Hat tip to the TaxProf blog.