James Leipold.
James Leipold. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)

The good news first: More members of the national law school class of 2013 had found jobs within nine months of graduation than their predecessors did in 2012. That’s according to employment data released Thursday by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).

Now the bad news: Because of its large size—the largest on record, in fact—the percentage of employed 2013 graduates fell slightly compared to the previous year. That marked the sixth straight year that the overall employment rate declined.

Among the class of 2013, 84.5 percent of graduates had secured jobs, compared with 84.7 percent the previous year. Their employment rate was 7.4 percentage points lower than the 91.9 percent high reached in 2007.

Since 1985, only two classes—1992 and 1993—have posted a lower overall employment rate than the class of 2013.

On the positive side, NALP found that median starting salaries crept up slightly, from $61,245 in 2012 to $62,467 in 2013. Moreover, a slightly higher percentage of graduates found jobs in private practice and at larger law firms. Still, the entry-level legal employment market remained shaky, NALP executive director Jim Leipold said.

“In general, the picture that emerges is one of slow growth, and growth that is a blend of continued shrinkage and downsizing in some areas offset by growth in other areas,” Leipold said.

“In general, the legal sector is best described as mostly flat in the spring of 2014, with overall headcount off by more than 40,000 jobs from its prerecession high, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The entry-level job market reflects that mostly flat business environment for the legal sector generally.”

NALP’s overall employment figures don’t reflect the percentage of law graduates in jobs that require them to use their new degrees. Just 64.4 percent of 2013 graduates landed in jobs that require bar passage, the same as during the previous year, NALP reported. That figure has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2008.

In April, the American Bar Association reported that 57 percent of recent graduates had found full-time, long-term jobs that required bar passage within nine months of graduation. NALP’s and the ABA’s figures differ slightly because NALP’s number includes part-time or short-term jobs.

Part-time jobs appeared to be on the decline. Overall, 8.4 percent of the reported jobs were part-time, compared with 9.8 percent in 2012 and 11 percent on 2011, according to NALP. Still, that was higher than for 2008, when just 6.5 percent of reported jobs were part-time.

A slightly higher percentage of 2013 graduates obtained so-called J.D.-advantage jobs—for which a law degree is an advantage but not a requirement. Of the class, 13.8 percent landed in that category, up from 13.3 percent in 2012.

Starting salaries were a bright spot. NALP collected salary data for two-thirds of all the full-time, long-term jobs reported and found that the median increased for the second year in a row, to $62,467. The national average for the class of 2013 was $82,408, up from $80,798. Most of the salary growth stemmed from the slight uptick in large-firm hiring, NALP found; median salaries in government and public interest jobs remained largely unchanged this year.

Nearly 4,000 recent graduates found jobs at law firms of 500 or more lawyers—a nearly 9 percent increase over 2012 graduates. That brought large-firm hiring back to its 2010 levels, but still didn’t rival the 5,100 new graduates large firms hired in 2009.

Alternatively, hiring at small law firms—of two to 10 lawyers—actually fell by 1 percentage point.

Fewer graduates found work in public service. Just 27.6 percent of 2013 graduates found jobs in the government, military, public-interest organizations or judicial clerkships, down slightly from 28.2 percent the previous year.

“Law graduates must enter law school with the understanding that the jobs picture, while strengthening, is one that will continue to evolve. And in the course of that evolution, it is almost certain that new opportunities will present themselves, just as it is certain that some traditional opportunities will continue to erode,” Leipold said.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.