A Room at the Bar of Prohibition? Job Market for New Law Graduates

Last updated: July 7, 2013

by Gerald Lee Wilson, Ph.D.
Duke University

Statements such as "an Oregon lawyer pumps gas to make ends meet" and "a Massachusetts attorney has a second job as a grocery clerk" as published in the January/February issue of the Bar Leader in an article entitled "Any Room Left at the Bar?" attract the reader's attention and inevitably invite the conclusion that there are too many lawyers today and anyone would be a fool to spend three years and megabucks to get a law degree.  The public in general, as well as lawyers and prospective lawyers in particular, want to know the truth about the present and future job market for the profession.

The logical place to go for the "truth" is, of course, the numbers. "The Class of 2010 Employment Report" compiled and released by the National Association For Law Placement (the latest year available) indicates that of those law graduates responding to the NALP survey and eligible for employment, 87.6% were employed within six months after graduation. If the NALP figures accurately reflect reality then questions such as is there "any room left at the bar?" are misleading and seek to substitute the exception for the rule in the public mind. But turn the kaleidoscope once more. Several years ago, Carl Modecki, Director of the Massachusetts Bar Association, stated in the Bar Leader, "we are getting 1600 new lawyers a year (in Massachusetts). Our active practicing bar is 16,000...one-half of our last admissions class has not been able to find a full-time law related job. Every time I look around I see more unemployed, legally educated people." It is obvious from reading all of the above that what we are dealing with is conflicting evidence with each contributor seeking to have his contribution accepted as the general truth. How are the laymen and the lawyer alike to wade through this evidence and evaluate the real job prospects for the new lawyer?  Perhaps the best way is to understand the situation in general for new law graduates; the specific reasons why individuals with legal training fail to obtain law related jobs; and the future of the legal profession in terms of employment.

First, what is the employment situation in general for new law graduates? Obviously there are more unemployed lawyers than ever before and their ranks increase with each graduating class. This reflects not only the operation of the law of supply and demand, but also the changing nature of the profession itself. Computerization, down-sizing, the growth in the number of paralegals, the institution of "permanent associates" and the contracting out of specific projects as well as efforts to cut overhead by having smaller, less elegant offices are having their impact on hiring practices. Coupled with this is the fact that another major employer of new  lawyers, government at all levels, may not be employing  as many new  awyers, both because of budget trimming and, in some cases, reasons rooted in political philosophy.  In sum, certainly there are problems for many law graduates seeking employment, but these problems are not necessarily unique to lawyers. In many cases, they reflect a changing society with different needs and alternative ways of fulfilling these needs.

The second factor, and it must be placed in context with the first, is the specific reasons why legally trained people fail to obtain law related jobs. There are at least five specific reasons unrelated to the state of the economy but which may assume greater importance in a troubled economy. These specific reasons should be kept in mind when reading about lawyers who pump gas and wait on tables. The first reason why some fail to gain employment is that they, unfortunately, did not choose a law school with an eye toward the job market. Since not all law schools are "created equal" nor "endowed by their creators" equally, both the quality of the education received and the reputation of the school determine to a large extent the marketability of the graduate. Second, the graduate's rank-in-class can often be as important as the name of the school granting the degree. Obviously, in most cases, the lower the individual's standing in the class, the fewer options the graduate will have. This is especially true for the graduate of newer and/or less prestigious law schools. Third, amazing as it may seem, some law students wait until quite late in their law school careers to begin seeking employment. Despite the dictates of common sense and the urging of law school placement officers, some just never get around to do anything about a job until graduation day and the threat of academic non-being are close at hand. Fourth, some graduates seeking employment place significant restrictions on the position sought including unrealistic salary requirements and geographic limitations.

The geographic factor may be a key one in unraveling the riddle of conflicting opinions about the current status of the job market for lawyers. In some areas of the nation, Boston, for example, the market is traditionally very tight; while in other areas, Dallas, for example, the market is usually very good. This marked discrepancy or unevenness can, to some extent, be explained by two factors: the desirability of the city in terms of the practice of law and, the number of law school graduates entering that market each year. Both Boston and Dallas rank high in terms of desirability, but, as Stephen T. Yandle, Associate Dean at Yale University School of Law and former President of the National Association for Law Placement once pointed out, there is a significant difference in the available number of new law graduates in these two cities each year and this makes quite a difference in the competitive situation. For example, in one year as reported in the NALP survey which covers 75% of the law school graduates, Boston, the fifth largest hirer of lawyers in the nation, hired 593 lawyers while approximately 2,000 lawyers were graduated from the six law schools in the immediate vicinity.  Dallas the tenth largest hirer in the nation, hired 371 lawyers while the one law school in the vicinity graduated 205 lawyers. Allowing for the fact that not all of these law school graduates sought employment in the immediate area, the law of supply and demand in each case is demonstrated by the impact of the local law school population on the job market in that area.   

A combination of careful research and flexibility on the part of the new law graduate can greatly increase the possibility of desirable employment. The annual report of the National Association for Law Placement is an essential tool in identifying such factors as those described above.

Finally, and this is both delicate and vague, personality factors can be important in determining the ease with which the graduate obtains employment. In all probability, a law review graduate of a top law school will get a desirable job even if he or she possesses less than a winning personality.  Otherwise, the individual applying for a job must have the kind of personal qualifications that will enable him or her to blend in with others in the firm or agency. I, myself, have been the captive audience of one taxi driver cum-law degree whom I doubt would have found employment as a lawyer even if he had been the editor of the law review at one of the top ten law schools.  In many cases, failure by a legally educated person to obtain employment may well be explained by one or more of these specific reasons.

The final consideration, the future of the profession in terms of supply and demand, leads, of course, into the realm of speculation. Obviously no one knows for sure what the job market for those graduating from law school next year, to say nothing of those entering law school next year, will be. The economy will play its part and as business expands so presumably will the need for more lawyers. Certainly government at all levels will continue to need lawyers; the rate of hiring to be determined by both the condition of the economy and the political philosophy of those in control at each level. The late A. Kenneth Pye, former Dean of Duke University School of Law and President of Southern Methodist University, consistently expressed optimism about the future for law school graduates, and especially so when opportunities for individuals with legal training are compared with opportunities for those in other professional fields. As Mr. Pye pointed out, many law graduates may not be able to move into the traditional world of law, but a wide variety of other possibilities exists, not the least of which may be the rendering of legal services to individuals and communities never served before. Perhaps the best advice to give those considering law as a profession, and incidentally, not a bad way to summarize these comments, is found in Mr. Pye's words to those considering law school but worried about the job market. He urged them to "keep a positive attitude toward supply rather than a negative attitude regarding demand."

In the final analysis, when the question is asked, "Is there any room left at the bar?"  the answer, in many cases, may be found not by looking at the capacity of the bar but the capabilities of the individual.

* Copyright 1983, The North Carolina State Bar.  Most of this article originally appeared in The North Carolina State Bar Quarterly, 30:2, 14-16.  Reprinted by permission.  Revised, August 2010.

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