Employment rates for the law school class of 2011 hit an 18-year low, according to data released on June 7 by NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement.

Nine months after graduation, 85.6 percent of the class had secured employment — down by 6 percentage points from the all-time high employment rate of nearly 92 percent in 2007. Furthermore, not quite 66 percent of the recent graduates were in jobs that require bar membership — down by 9 percent since 2008.

That means that one third of recent graduates were in jobs that don’t require a law degree, were back in school or were unemployed. Another 12.5 percent had jobs in which a J.D. is preferred but not required, up from 10.7 percent for the class of 2010.

The percentage of law graduates in part-time jobs also continued to grow. Almost 12 percent of the class of 2011 had part-time jobs nine months after graduating, when 5 percent was the norm during flusher times. Additionally, almost 7 percent of the positions were temporary. Most of those jobs — held by about 5 percent of all 2011 graduates — were funded by law schools themselves.

Taking into account that about 3 percent of new law grads went back to school in some capacity, 12 percent of the class found no job at all. (Some of those graduates who were unemployed after nine months may have since found jobs, NALP noted.)

Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, suspects that the percentage of new graduates with full-time law jobs was closer to 50 percent, taking school-funded, part-time and temporary law jobs out of the calculation.

“Until we know the percentage of full-time, bar passage-required jobs, it’s hard to know how bad the situation really is,” McEntee said. “These numbers are pretty much what I expected. I’m a member of the class of 2011, and I’ve seen my classmates and people at other schools struggle. It hits close to home.”

NALP executive director Jim Leipold characterized the employment picture for new attorneys as “brutal.” He noted that the U.S. economy had yet to hit the skids when the class of 2011 began applying to law school.

“When this class took their LSATs and applied for law school, there were no signs that the legal economic boom was showing any signs of slowing. And yet by the time they graduated, they faced what was arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years,” Leipold said.

For the past two years, NALP has issued reports calling the job market for new lawyers the worst yet. The “long tail” of new lawyer hiring means that the full brunt of recessions are not felt for several years, Leipold said. After the U.S economy tanked in 1991, legal hiring didn’t hit rock bottom until 1993 and 1994.

Many law firms cancelled their 2010 summer clerk programs because they already had an abundance of deferred associates on hand, so the class of 2011 had far fewer opportunities to get a foot in the door, Leipold said.

One of the most significant findings was the dramatic erosion of private practice jobs. Fewer than half of new law graduates — 49.5 — found jobs in private practice. That percentage has dipped below 50 only once in the 38 years that NALP has been tracking law jobs.

Leipold attributed the decline of private practice jobs largely to large law firms curtailing new associate hiring. A larger percentage of graduates are finding jobs at smaller firms, which tend to pay lower salaries, he said.

But this year may represent the bottoming out of the legal job market, Leipold said, and a slow recovery could be on the horizon. For one thing, summer clerk hiring was up slightly this year, according to NALP research.

“Absent another significant national or international economic setback, I would expect to see some aspects of the employment profile for the next two classes begin to inch up — though there is nothing to indicate a rapid recovery or a likely return to pre-recession employment levels any time in the near future,” Leipold said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.