Market for New Law Graduates Is Steady

In the last seven years the employment market for new law graduates has remained relatively strong and remarkably stable, standing close to or above an 89% employment rate. This differs dramatically with the early and mid-nineties, when employment rates were in the 84-85% range. The median starting salary for full-time jobs was $55,033, essentially unchanged from the class of 2003. These are among the findings reported in NALP’s newly released Jobs & JD’s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates — Class of 2004, the only comprehensive study available on the employment experiences of recent law graduates. This 31st consecutive report documents an employment rate of 88.9%, a figure that includes employment of all types. This rate is unchanged from that for 2003. This compares with 89% for 2002, 90% for 2001, and 91.5% for 2000. A total of 178 ABA-accredited law schools responded to the survey, providing employment information on 92% of all graduates of the Class of 2004. Among the findings:

  • Of the graduates for whom employment status was known, 73% obtained a job for which bar passage is required. An additional 7.5% obtained jobs for which a JD degree is preferred, or may even be required, but for which bar passage is not required.

  • Among graduates for whom employment status was known 11.1% were not working — 2.5% were pursuing an advanced degree, 3.5% were actively seeking a job, 3% were studying for the bar exam exclusively, and 2.1% were neither seeking a job nor studying for the bar.

  • As in all prior years that NALP has collected data, the most common employment setting was that of private practice within a law firm. Of graduates known to be employed, 56.2% obtained their first job in a law firm. The percentage of graduates employed in private practice has fluctuated only between 55% and 58% since 1993 and is well below the high of 64.3% for the Class of 1988.

  • Public service employment, including government jobs, judicial clerkships, and public interest positions, accounted for 27.7% of jobs taken by employed graduates, and compares with 26.9% for the prior year. Jobs with public interest organizations specifically accounted for 4.9% of jobs. However, because of a change in the way in which public defenders are categorized (previously categorized as government and now categorized as public interest), the public interest employment figure is not directly comparable to the 3.1% figure for the prior year. Figures for public interest employment other than as public defenders suggest that the rate is comparable to that for the Class of 2003.

  • Compared to the overall median starting salary of $55,033, private sector medians are higher — $80,000 in private practice and $60,000 in business/industry; both were unchanged from 2003. Medians for public service jobs, those in government, public interest organizations, and as judicial clerks, increased modestly, but remained considerably lower, at $45,000, $38,000, and $43,000, respectively. The higher median in private practice notwithstanding, for all full-time jobs, half of salaries were $55,000 or less, outnumbering by a considerable margin salaries of more than $75,000.

In addition to documenting employment experiences for the class as a whole, the report clearly demonstrates differences with regard to demographics and geography.

  • About 43% of employed African-American graduates took jobs in private practice, while about 59% of employed white and 58% of employed Asian/Pacific Islander graduates did so.

  • Employment patterns also differ between men and women, with women more frequently taking government, judicial clerkship, and public interest positions. About 31% of employed women took these types of positions, compared to just over one-quarter of employed men.

  • Older graduates were less likely to go into private practice and more likely to enter academic or business settings. About 41% of employed graduates age 41 or older entered private practice, compared with 61% of employed graduates age 20-25. About one-quarter of employed graduates age 41 or older took jobs in business/industry, a rate about three times that of employed graduates age 20-30.

  • In some cities, such as Atlanta, Dallas, New York City, and Pittsburgh, jobs in private practice account for 70% or more of the jobs taken by new graduates. In contrast, cities such as Baltimore, Columbus, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Miami offer more government and clerkship opportunities. Opportunities in business were relatively abundant in Cleveland, San Diego, and St. Louis.

How and when graduates obtained their jobs and the extent to which employed graduates continue to seek a different job are also documented by Jobs & JD’s, offering valuable information for everyone interested in understanding the legal employment market.

  • The two most common means of obtaining a job were fall on-campus interviewing (OCI) and a letter or other “self-initiated contact” with the employer, each of which accounted for about 22% of jobs. Overall, 32% of law firm jobs were obtained through fall OCI; few jobs at small firms are obtained in this way.

  • About 67% of jobs were obtained before graduation. Somewhat less than one-fifth of jobs (17.8%) were obtained after graduation but before bar results; the remainder were obtained after bar results were issued. Jobs in the military, state or federal judicial clerks, and at large law firms were most likely to be obtained before graduation.

  • Among employed graduates, 13.9% were still seeking another job. This compares with 14.1% for the Class of 2003. Graduates of color, and those age 41 and older, were most likely to be seeking other employment, as were those who attended law school part-time.

The complete Jobs & JD’s report provides more detail on these topics as well as others, including salary levels and the nature of jobs by law firm size, level of government, and type of business; salaries for all states; full-time law firm salaries for over 200 cities; geographic mobility of graduates; job status by demographic characteristics; and employment patterns for all states and selected cities.

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