The New Normal Ten Years In: The Job Market for New Lawyers Today and What it Means for The Legal Academy Tomorrow
Law Review Article
legal employment, Great Recession of 2008, legal market, JD Advantage jobs
Despite record-low general unemployment and a strong economy, the graduating law-school Class of 2017 entered a much smaller and more constrained labor market than existed ten years before. Overall, the number of entry-level, strongly law-related jobs (“Law Jobs”) that the Class of 2017 obtained was 26% lower than the Class of 2007, and remains at levels not seen since the early 1990s. The only reason that greater proportions of the graduating class are obtaining Law Jobs than in recent years is the dramatic decrease in the number of students attending law school since 2010.
Examination of the various sectors of the entry-level Law-Jobs market shows that no sector produces more Law Jobs today than it did in 2007. That said, some sectors’ hiring shrank more than others. While there are fewer entry-level Law Jobs overall today than in 2007, there were no drastic changes in the non-law-firm sectors’ share of all Law Jobs or of the graduating class. Among private law firms, it is the smallest (2–10 lawyers) and the largest (over 500 lawyers) that have reduced their entry-level hiring least.
In addition, a look at the pattern of entry-level hiring in the ABA’s “JD Advantage” category (referring to jobs that are law-related but do not require a law license) provides quantitative evidence that many of these positions have long been, and remain, distinctly less preferred by and less satisfying to new graduates than conventional law practice. These findings call into doubt comments touting work that is merely law-related as the future of the profession, and suggest that most law schools would be wise to concentrate on preparing their students for practice.
For reasons explained in detail, there is no reason to believe that any of these patterns will change in the foreseeable future. Overall, this implies that the steady and rapid entry-level legal-employment growth common from the 1970s through the mid-2000s is over, and a stable “New Normal” has established itself. This New Normal likely will see only gradual growth in entry-level Law-Jobs hiring at rates roughly equal to the growth rates of the domestic population and economy—about 1%–2% per year overall.
These changes impose a straitened perspective on the recent increase in applicants to law school in the 2017–2018 admissions cycle, the first meaningful increase since 2010. Given that any substantial expansion in the need for new lawyers is unlikely, any continued improvement in the employment prospects of new law graduates at most law schools will be dependent on keeping entering-class sizes steady or making them smaller. Law schools that grow without a specific and quantifiable basis to predict commensurate expansion in particular labor markets that they directly serve risk diluting their graduates’ employment outcomes, with corresponding adverse effects on their life and career prospects, as well as the reputation of the institution.