The law class of 2017 graduated into a “surprisingly strong” job market, according to new entry level employment figures from the National Association of Law Placement (NALP).
Overall, new graduate employment increased one percent over the pervious year, to 88.6 percent. But more tellingly, the percentage of 2017 graduates who landed jobs that require bar passage within 10 months of leaving campus rose more than 4 percent to nearly 72 percent. That annual increase is larger than the gains cumulatively posted over the previous four years, according to NALP.
The rise in the percentage of freshly minted lawyers in bar-pass required jobs alongside the boost in overall employment is the “single most important indicator of an improved market,” according to the NALP report.
“Barring another economic slowdown or interruption and barring a significant jump in law school enrollment as a result of rising applications, the employment outlook for recent law graduates looks brighter (if not exactly rosy) than it has at any time since 2008, and that is good news,” said NALP Executive Director James Leipold in an announcement on the new figures.
Recent data from the Law School Admission Council showed an 8-percent surge in the number of people applying to this fall’s entering law school class.
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Much of the growth in the bar pass-required job category was fueled by increased Big Law hiring, NALP found. Firms with more than 500 lawyers hired about 370 more new associates than they did the previous year. Thus, more than a quarter of 2017 graduates in law firm jobs were at those large firms.
And yet, the Big Law hiring market has yet to recover to its pre-recession level.
“While the largest law firms of more than 500 lawyers hired more law school graduates than at any time since the recession, the number of entry-level jobs at those firms is still off by nearly 600 positions compared with the peak hiring measured with the class of 2008,” Leipold wrote in his commentary on the latest data.
That boost in Big Law hiring in turn helped drive up reported salaries—another welcome development. The median national salary reported by graduates in fulltime jobs was $70,000, up from $65,000 the previous year. The average reported salary was $95,320, up from $90,305 a year ago. More than one in five 2017 law graduates reported earning $180,000, which was the standard starting salary at many large firms at the time they were hired. Since then, a number of firms have raised new associates salaries to $190,000.
But there is a significant catch to all this good news, which is that for the fourth straight year, employment gains in the entry-level job market were the result of fewer law graduates vying for jobs and not from an actual increase in jobs.
For instance, the class of 2017 was 2,200 smaller than the class of 2016 and 25 percent smaller than the historically large class of 2013.
In terms of actual jobs, the class of 2017 secured 1,200 fewer positions than the previous graduating class, even though their employment rate was higher.
The unemployment rate for the class of 2017 edged down to 9 percent, from 10 percent the previous year.
“All of this suggests that the dramatic falloff in law school enrollment, coupled with a recovering Big Law market, has in some ways provided the correction that was needed, and we are closer than at any time since the recession to having the number of law school graduates more closely match the number and kind of jobs available,” Leipold said. “While the worst of the underemployment problem has now been remedied, the unemployment rate ten months after graduation still remains much higher than it should be.”