This might sound weird, but here goes: Now might be a pretty good time to think about law school.
Earlier this month the National Association for Law Placement released its first look at how the J.D. class of 2013 fared on the job market. Overall, it wasn’t pretty. For the sixth year running, the employment rate fell, as schools produced a record number of graduates for an industry without the room for them.
There was, however, a nugget of good news buried in the data. While the employment rate dropped, grads still found more jobs overall than in 2012. And as the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this week, big law firms—the kinds offering those fat, six-figure salaries that law schools like to advertise—continued to pick up their recruiting. Employers might not have been able to absorb the crush of lawyers who left campus, but hiring seems to have at least stabilized.
And that’s a huge deal. Thanks to the historic enrollment crash that has shrunk law school classes during the past few years, it means that graduates might soon be looking at a shockingly strong job market.
Here is the key number to keep in mind: 36,000. That is roughly the number of new J.D.s we should expect to graduate in 2016. Getting to that figure is pretty straightforward: In the fall of 2013, 39,700 students enrolled in law school. Given that about 10 percent of each law school class generally drops out, we should expect no more than 36,000 to reach commencement. (I’m actually rounding up the number a bit to be conservative.)
In comparison, 46,776 law students graduated in 2013. So we’re talking about a potential 23 percent plunge.
With less competition it should be far easier for graduates to find decent work. Again, let’s assume the legal job market doesn’t grow at all in the next two years—that it simply stays flat. What might that look like?
We can break down last year’s class, using data from the American Bar Association. Among all graduates who reported their job status, 32,775 found full-time, long-term work, meaning the job lasted at least a year. (Why is a year considered “long-term”? For one, many judicial clerkships run only that long.) Of those jobs, 26,337 required passing the bar, meaning they were typical legal jobs. An additional 4,714 were in fields that technically did not require law degrees, but where employers preferred to hire J.D.s anyway—think congressional staffers, labor organizers, or NGO workers. Finally, 1,724 were in jobs completely unrelated to law, which sounds bad, but the reality is that a certain number of graduates always do something unconnected to their degree.
Let’s say those numbers hold. In that case, we can expect that about 91 percent of the class of 2016 will find long-term, full-time work, compared with about 72 percent last year. About 73 percent would be in full-time, long-term legal jobs, compared with 58 percent last year. Essentially, employment rates would look similar to those in 2007, when the mid-2000s legal hiring wave crested. That year, about 92 percent of graduates were employed, and 76.9 percent obtained legal jobs. (Both those figures included part-time and short-term positions).
Some would argue that I’m painting too rosy a picture, because law schools themselves have been pumping up their employment numbers by hiring their own graduates for yearlong jobs, for example, or funding fellowships for them at nonprofits. In 2013, schools funded 918 of these kinds of positions. If we subtract them out, the picture is a bit less optimistic. About 88 percent of all grads would have full-time, long-term work, and 71 percent would be in legal jobs. Essentially, law grads would be partying like it was 1997.
Now, some caveats.
First and most importantly, just because law school might generally look like a better decision doesn’t meant that all programs are worthwhile. Some lower-ranked schools will continue to deliver miserable job prospects for their students, just as they have for years. Rather than hire from notoriously problematic institutions like Golden Gate University or Thomas M. Cooley Law School, some employers might choose to hire underemployed attorneys who graduated into rougher job markets over the past couple of years.
Second, we’re still not heading back to the heady days of the Big Law hiring binge that ended with the recession. The era of mega-firms fighting tooth and nail for their pick of graduates and pushing entry-level salaries ever higher are dead and gone. For 2013 grads who went to work at law firms, the median salary was just $95,000, compared with $125,000 in 2008. Nobody should expect a return to bubble-era pay scales. Many of the jobs available now, meanwhile, are in less prestigious corners of the industry, like legal technology companies. It’s also always possible that the legal economy will suddenly crash again. But right now there aren’t too many signs of impending doom, even if you’re deeply skeptical, as I am, of the industry’s business model.
Third, nothing I’ve written should be interpreted as a positive reflection on law schools as institutions. The only reason the class of 2016 is looking at a relatively upbeat future is that enough students gave up on the idea of becoming lawyers amid a market that was flooded with jobless young people.
But let’s end on a positive note. If things are looking good for the class of 2016, consider this: The class of 2017 is on pace to be even smaller. And there’s still plenty of time to apply for the class of 2018, of course.
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