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Law School Grads Hit 12-Year Employment High Before Pandemic

Aug. 12, 2020, 10:00 AM

The last law school graduating class before the coronavirus pandemic notched a near record high employment rate, a new report found, but it warned that the virus is likely to squelch similar outcomes in the coming years.

More than 90% of 2019 law school graduates landed jobs after finishing school, according to preliminary findings by the National Association for Law Placement, which collected data from 196 schools in mid-March of 2020. That percentage of employed graduates was the highest recorded by NALP in the 12 years since the Great Recession.

The 90.3 % rate was up from 89.4% for the class of 2018, but down slightly from 91.9% for the class of 2007.

Despite the high post-graduate employment level reported by law schools, the Class of 2019 could have the last strong numbers for some time.

“The bad news is that they are not likely to be predictive of the unemployment outcomes for the next several classes, as the recession and other changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to provide a much more challenging job market for some years to come,” warned James Leipold, NALP’s executive director.

Law schools report the employment numbers, which are audited by the American Bar Association before they are published. But the numbers do not reflect what happens to lawyers later. Labor Department data shows lawyer employment took a big hit in the first six months of 2020 as a number of law firms and offices took austerity measures which included furloughs, layoffs, and compensation reductions.

How quickly firms will snap back is unknown as well as how many 2019 graduates will be able to hang onto the jobs they secured as they left law school.

“Now it is all but inevitable that the employment outcomes for the Class of 2019 will stand as a high-water mark for some time to come, though of course even some of the jobs they had secured are at risk in the current environment,” Leipold wrote.

Measures of graduate success in the legal field were on an upward swing before coronavirus, with more graduates landing jobs for which bar passage is required, for example. Of those with known employment status, 74.3% of 2019 graduates had jobs that were full-time, long-term and required bar passage, a 3.4 percentage point increase from 2018 and a 17-point increase from 2011.

Jobs in private practice also grew, coming in at 55.2%, a return to the level that prevailed for decades prior to the Great Recession, which wiped out many desirable jobs for new attorneys. Some 30.2% of graduates were employed at law firms of more than 500 lawyers.

The report notes one factor improving employment numbers may be a shrinking number of graduating lawyers. The 2019 graduating class was 33,954 compared to the class in 2012 that produced 46,776 job seekers, according to the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com
Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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