A large graduating class and fewer law school-funded jobs meant that the overall employment rate for the J.D. class of 2012 fell by 1 percent compared with a year ago, according to figures released Thursday by NALP.
It marked the fifth straight year that the overall employment figure has fallen, according to NALP. The good news was that the actual number of jobs obtained by new graduates was up slightly, as was the median starting salary.
"The employment picture remains decidedly mixed," NALP executive director James Leipold said. "However, with the Class of 2012 we see the beginning of a rebounding private practice sector, particularly at large law firms—and, with that, we see some rebounding salary numbers."
The findings backed up data released in March by the American Bar Association, which found that employment rates for new law graduates had fluctuated just slightly from the previous year's numbers.
Altogether, nearly 85 percent of new law graduates found some sort of job within nine months of graduation, but less than 60 percent of them had landed permanent, full-time jobs that required bar passage, according to NALP—the National Association for Law Placement.
The ABA concluded that the overall employment rate was 82 percent and that 56 percent of new graduates were in full-time, permanent jobs that required bar passage. The discrepancy was due in part to the fact that the ABA based its figures on total class size, while NALP counted the number of graduates whose employment status was known.
The national median starting salary for recent graduates was $61,245, up from $60,000 last year. It was the first time since 2008, when the overall median was $72,000, that the figure increased. The national average salary increased from $78,653 to $80,798. NALP's salary figures were based on data reported by 65 percent of graduates.
Both salary increases were primarily due to increased hiring by large law firms. Slightly more than half of the 2012 graduates landed in private practice—about 1 percent more than last year but less than the 55 percent to 58 percent that has been the norm during the 39 years that NALP has been keeping tabs.
Still, the percentage of those jobs at law firms with 500 or more lawyers—which tend to pay the highest salaries—was 19 percent, up from 16 percent last year. Large firms hired 3,600 freshly minted lawyers during 2012, 27 percent more than in 2011 but nowhere near the 5,100 large firm hires during 2009.
Of new graduates who landed law firm jobs, 29 percent said they earned the common large firm starting salary of $160,000.
NALP attributed the decline in overall employment in part to the fact that law schools were financing fewer jobs for graduates. Only 4 percent of new graduates obtained such jobs, compared to 5 percent of the class of 2011. Among those school-funded jobs, 72 percent required bar passage but 47 percent were only part-time and 62 percent lasted for less than a year.
"That an adjustment was made there is not unexpected," Leipold said. "Some schools were funding jobs at a level that was economically unsustainable over the long haul."
The most recent graduating class saw a slightly higher unemployment rate than their predecessors did, at 12.8 percent, NALP found. In a rare bright spot, the percentage of new J.D.s in part-time jobs was down slightly, at 9.8 percent. Part-time jobs were particularly common in academia, followed by public-interest settings.
"Looking ahead, I would expect to see the employment picture for the Class of 2013 continue to improve, although that is another very large graduating class and that will take a toll on the overall employment rate," Leipold said. "As class sizes come down over time and the legal employment market stabilizes somewhat, I would expect to continue to see modest improvement in the job market in the near and medium term future."
Karen Sloan writes for The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.