All potential law students should keep themselves apprised of the ever-changing status of the legal job market. After all, the vast majority of students do not begin law school with a job waiting for them on the other side. Recently, there have been a number of important developments, both good and bad, which this post will cover.
First, on the positive side: median salaries are up, and the percentage of graduates who get jet jobs has gone up for the first time since 2008. Higher salaries are a huge benefit to law students, many of whom must take on a large debt load to finance the increasingly expensive cost of attending law school. Coupled with a higher percentage of graduating students actually receiving jobs, this is a very positive development for the market and for the lives of debt-heavy graduates.
Unfortunately, on the bad side, most of the increases in salary and employment have accrued to those who work in “Big Law” firms exclusively, the number of legal jobs available continues to decline, and the job market will soon have to accommodate the increases in applicants.
Let’s unpack those negatives, in turn, starting with the increase in median salaries. The highest paying legal jobs are in “Big Law” — at large firms that tend to work associates incredibly hard. A couple years ago, the starting salary went up to $180,000 (up from $160,000) in major markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.) and, a few months ago, the starting salary increased again to $190,000 in many of the largest firms. As you might imagine, these salary bumps played a large role in the increase in median salaries. Thus, if you’re not working in Big Law, odds are you’re not necessarily seeing an increase in salary.
Second, you might be wondering how the number of legal jobs available is declining, but the percentage of graduating students receiving jobs is increasing (seems a lot like an LSAT question there). Well, the answer is simple — post-recession, going to law school was a much less attractive prospect, and fewer students applied given the shaky state of the legal job market. As a result, the number of students graduating in the Class of 2017 was relatively small. Thus, while the overall number of jobs is on the decline, that decline was offset by the smaller number of students competing for the available jobs.
Now, unfortunately, this is where the increase in applicants becomes more problematic. The graduating Class of 2020 and beyond is going to be larger than the current graduating classes and, if trends continue, there will be fewer jobs available. Thus, we’re probably going to see a much lower percentage of students receiving jobs. The legal market is never going to return to pre-recession levels. Jobs are never going to be as plentiful. Unfortunately, buoyed by the hope of larger salaries and by the positive employment percentages, the number of applicants might start to resemble pre-recession numbers. This will likely result in a rude awakening for some. The best way to avoid this result is to get a good LSAT score and choose a law school with sterling employment numbers that will help insulate you from the potential negatives.
To sum it all up, for the small percentage of students who end up receiving Big Law jobs, there’s going to be a fat check waiting for you (along with untold hours of work). And for the remaining students who don’t get a job in Big Law, there is a higher likelihood you’ll receive a legal job because you’re not competing against as many people (but don’t expect to see the same increases in salary as your Big Law peers). Going forward, an even smaller percentage of students will land the higher paying jobs, and a larger percentage of students will find themselves unable to land legal employment. Consequently, the decision about where to go to law school (and whether to attend at all) is going to become even more important.