People waiting for the job interview. Photo: Shutterstock.

The percentage of newly minted J.D.s who found legal work increased for the fifth straight year in 2018, according to new employment data from the American Bar Association.

The latest figures, released Monday, show that 78.6 percent of the class of 2018 had secured full-time, long-term jobs that either require bar passage, or for which a law degree offers an advantage within 10 months of graduation—up from 75.3 percent the previous year.

But as in previous years, some of that gain was fueled by fewer law graduates competing for jobs and not by a significant increase in the number of entry-level legal jobs. The actual number of the bar-required and J.D.-advantage jobs increased by 714, or slightly less than 3 percent. Yet the total number of J.D. graduates in 2018 fell by 583, or nearly 2 percent. Thus, the combination of both factors yielded relatively strong outcomes for the 2018 graduating class.

Law School Transparency executive director Kyle McEntee warned that law schools should not become too comfortable with the upward trajectory of graduate employment rates. The entering class of 2015—which went on to graduate in 2018—represents the recent low point in national law school enrollment. First-year enrollment has crept up slightly in each subsequent year, meaning that there will be more graduates on the job market next year, for the first time in half a decade.

“Schools will suffer consequences unless we see an uptick in the actual number of jobs,” McEntee said. “The economy is pretty much full-steam ahead now. We’re close to full employment according to some economists.”

Despite a strong economy, the number of entry-level, full-time legal jobs has consistently come in at around 23,000 in recent years, according to data compiled by Law School Transparency. That figure ranged from 27,000 to 30,000 between 1985 and 2010, the data shows. So, while the overall economy has recovered from the 2008 recession, the entry-level legal employment market has not fully rebounded.

Not all employment sectors saw gains, according to the new ABA data. The percentage of new graduates going into public interest positions increased nearly 4 percent, while the percentage in clerkships increased 3 percent. By contrast, the percentage of recent graduates going into positions in business and industry declined more than 7 percent, while the percentage going into government jobs fell slightly and 14 percent fewer new graduates embarked on careers as solo practitioners.

The ABA data shows that the percentage of new graduates working in law firms held steady in 2018, but McEntee said that a closer look reveals that hiring was up about 1 percent among the largest firms. That growth, in turn, primarily benefits the relatively small segment of elite law schools from which Big Law recruits most heavily.

Consistent with recent years, the percentage of new graduates in jobs funded by their law schools declined by 15 percent. Fewer than 2 percent of the class of 2018 were in such positions, according to the ABA.

The overall unemployment rate—which counts law graduates with no job and who are seeking one—decreased 9 percent in 2018.