As I’ve previously remarked, the growing body of law-school employment outcomes data suggests that the legal job market today is even worse for recent graduates than the very bad one many of us imagined. This naturally raises all kinds of quantitative and qualitative questions about which jobs have gone away.
I started my own analysis of the legal job market by examining BigLaw hiring and retention over the last forty years or so (here). The very significant changes in BigLaw in recent years, and the structural changes in the staffing and pricing of complex legal services that underpin many of those changes in both degree and kind, are obviously a substantial force depressing the entry-level job market today. But how substantial? At its high-water mark (say, 2005-07) BigLaw (which we might loosely define as firms larger than 100 lawyers) apparently hired between a quarter and third of the new graduates from accredited law schools each year. These new BigLaw hires were not distributed evenly across all law schools, of course. More prestigious schools tended to send larger proportions of their graduates to larger firms. (And the vast majority of those new hires had left the firm that hired them, and often BigLaw itself, within 3-5 years, meaning that those interested in lawyers’ lives have some massively interesting work to do tracing the career trajectories of the BigLaw diaspora, and how they may be changing. But I digress.)
Now that BigLaw is hiring significantly fewer new law graduates—perhaps as many as 30%-50% fewer—the disruptive effect on the legal job market overall is quite significant. That’s because BigLaw concentrated on the most highly credentialed, ambitious and personable—in other words, the most employable--members of each graduating class. Not all of the most employable law graduates wanted positions in BigLaw but, given the outsized salaries larger firms were proffering, many did. The portion of this highly employable population displaced by the reduced needs of BigLaw is now competing with their fellow recent graduates for other legal jobs, and tending to displace those who used to get those jobs. And so on down the “food chain,” until the least employable graduates get shouldered away from the table altogether.
But it seems likely that this is only a part of the story. Assuming the numbers we’re deriving are approximately correct, they suggest that perhaps 10%-15% of the new law graduates each year (that is, something less than half) who would have gone to BigLaw earlier in this decade now have to go somewhere else. But other estimates suggest that at least a third of recent law graduates have been unable to obtain, long-term, full-time law jobs. In what sectors of the legal job markets have the other positions been lost?
One sector that seems likely to have reduced its hiring is government. Freezes and cuts in federal, state and local government must have slowed the rate at which all levels of government are hiring entry-level lawyers. But how much? Please post a Comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any insight into this or any other sector of the legal job market.
In fact, there are a quite a number of things we know very little about right now in this regard. One is the benchmark against which we should measure the decline—that is, how close to full employment (in long-term, full-time law jobs) for new law graduates were we in 2005-07 (or for that matter in 1998-99)? Another is how far away from full employment for new law grads we are now.
In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit about how hard it’s going to be to figure that out. Stay tuned.