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Before the Raise to $180K, Salaries Were Already on the Up

Aug. 17, 2016, 9:54 PM

How did U.S. law schools’ class of 2015 fare after graduation?

It’s all in a new report released on Wednesday from the National Association for Law Placement. The report analyzed the job placement profile of the 39,984 graduates in the class of 2015 — a figure that was down 7,000 from two years prior when it stood at 46,776 for the class of 2013.

James Leipold, executive director of NALP, wrote in his cover summary:

“The employment outcomes findings for members of the class of 2015 depict an entry-level employment market that is remarkably flat by almost every measure, and, with a few notable exceptions, in most aspects looks exactly like the employment profile of the previous graduating class.”

The report confirmed some long running trend-lines, including that fewer students are going to law school. But the report also showed some changes in the employment market.

One change was that after years of stagnation, starting salaries for the class of 2015 grew, albeit modestly: The overall median starting salary grew by nearly three percent, from $63,000 to $64,800, while the median law firm salary grew by five percent, from $95,000 to $100,000.

The salary news is positive, especially considering that the report for the class of 2015 pre-dates the now-famous associate salary raise instituted by Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which in June brought first-year salaries at many large U.S. law firms to $180,000, from $160,000.

The news also bodes well for next year’s figures, said Leipold, in an interview.

“Next year with the class of 2016, we expect to see salaries grow again, particularly in private practice,” said Leipold.

The class of 2015’s starting salaries were adjusted upward because cost of living had risen over the years, and the legal industry had already sustained flat salaries for an “unprecedented” period of time, said Leipold.

“What we saw prior to the raise to $180K is that some of the B markets — not L.A., D.C. or Chicago, but Philly, Wilmington, and places like that at $135K — went to $145K,” said Leipold of the salary growth for the Class of 2015. “Medium law and some B markets that weren’t at $160,000 felt pressure to compete to come up closer to 160.”

But that was the good news for the graduates lucky enough to find jobs. The NALP report also found that fewer graduates landed entry level jobs in the private sector than any previous year since 1996.

Why? Leipold pointed to technological advances in the law and the fact that law firms outsource legal work done by entry-level lawyers to outsourcing companies.

“It surprised me because Big Law — the biggest firms — over the summer have been on a hiring streak,” said Leipold.

“They were caught short on not having enough mid-level associates when transactions picked back up and they are trying to fill their ranks so that they aren’t short-staffed in the future. But in every number of categories we saw jobs go down. It doesn’t speak to a growing private practice environment.”

Within the Big Law portion of private practice, the class of 2015 figures showed that entry level employment levels remained essentially unchanged between this year and last year at firms with more than 500 lawyers.

For the class of 2014, 3,952 graduates found jobs at law firms with more than 500 lawyers, whereas 4,007 graduates found those jobs in the class of 2015. That’s still about 1,200 lower than pre-recession levels, said Leipold, when there was 5,200 entry-level positions.

Leipold said that he doesn’t see those 1,200 jobs being made up anytime soon.

“I don’t know if they’ll go back to 5,200 again,” said Leipold. “I think the business model is changing. It’s harder to bill first-year work out to clients. Not a lot, but many of the tasks that first-year attorneys did, like document review, have been automated. Clients aren’t giving to the law firms entry-level work, they are giving it to outsourcing companies. So there isn’t enough work at that entry-level to support those summer classes.”