National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold
National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

The entry-level legal job market hasn’t recovered from the hit it took during the recession, and isn’t likely to return to the robust days of the mid-2000s in the foreseeable future.

That was the takeaway on Thursday from a talk by NALP executive director Jim Leipold during the legal placement organization’s annual conference in Seattle. The sector shed 60,000 jobs during 2008 and 2009, and only 15,000 of those positions have returned, he said.

Nearly 9 percent of associates at U.S. law firms were laid off in 2009 and some of them are still trying to make their ways back into fulltime law firm work.

“We’re not going back to 2006 anytime soon,” Leipold said.

Just as the recession depressed hiring, advances in technology now allow people to draft their own wills; large firms use predictive analytics to reduce demand for traditional lawyers; globalization allows legal work to be performed oversees at lower costs.

Demand for law firm services has remained flat for several years, meaning firms aren’t in the market for large incoming associate classes, Leipold said. “We’re seeing more differentiation in the financial outcomes of law firms. Some firms did really well last year, and some firms are struggling with negative numbers. We’ll see some real winners and losers.”

A larger proportion of graduates are finding jobs in business, meaning their employers aren’t technically legal services providers, he continued. And more are finding jobs for which a juris doctor is an advantage but not a requirement.

Starting median salaries for law graduates have decreased since 2008, in large part because large firms simply aren’t hiring as many associates at salaries of $160,000 these days. The average number of summer associate offers from firms with 700 or more attorneys fell from 30 in 2007 to 12 in 2013. More graduates piece together part time work for as long as 18 months before they land fulltime jobs, Leipold said.

Still, the hiring picture isn’t entirely bleak. In fact, the worst may be in the past. “I think the class of 2011 will historically come to be seen as the bottom of the market,” he said.

There have been modest indications that the employment market is creeping back up. The American Bar Association on Wednesday released figures showing that 57 percent of the class of 2013 landed fulltime, long-term jobs for which bar passage was required, up from 56.2 the previous year. Some legal employers reported recruiting at more law schools in 2013 than 2012, while others said they recruited at fewer schools.

“We’re not in a steady recovery,” Leipold said. “It’s more like two steps forward and one step back.”

However, the dramatic decline in law school enrollment will benefit the entry-level job market, as there will be fewer graduating students to compete for the pool of available jobs. Projections show that about 37,000 students will start law school next fall, down by about 7 percent from last year.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.