What Happened to the Class of 2010?

March 14th, 2015 / By

It has been almost five years since the Class of 2010 walked across the stage to pick up their JDs. Since then, we’ve debated whether the weak job outcomes for that class stemmed solely from the recession or represented structural changes within the profession itself. We’ve also wondered whether the graduates would improve their employment status as they moved into the workforce and the economy picked up. I decided to find out.

1,214 New Lawyers

In a paper just posted to SSRN, I tracked job outcomes for all 1,214 new lawyers who passed the Ohio bar exam in 2010 and then joined the bar. The study doesn’t focus on the graduates of a particular school, as some analyses do. I included all bar-passers, regardless of the school they attended (although note that Ohio only allows graduates of ABA-accredited schools to take the exam). I also followed successful examinees even if they left Ohio.

My focus on bar admittees parallels the approach taken in several earlier studies of the legal profession, including the recent After the JD (AJD) surveys. As I note in the paper, that means I can’t say very much about the approximately 12% of law school graduates who never gain bar admission. It also means that I overstate the percentage of jobs that require bar admission, although I offer some corrections for this in the paper.

I also explain in the paper why Ohio offers a useful perspective on trends nationally. The state’s 9-month outcomes, as reported by NALP, are similar to national averages. Ohio is the ninth largest state for both number of practicing lawyers and number of jobs taken by new law graduates. It’s also home to the nation’s largest law firm and several other BigLaw shops. And the state has a healthy economy, with an overall unemployment rate (4.8% in December 2014) that is lower than in states with the largest legal markets. During the same month, New York’s unemployment rate was 5.8%; Illinois, 6.2%; California, 7.0%; and DC, 7.3%.

1,137 Jobs

For each of the 1,214 lawyers in my study, I searched for the job held in December 2014. I didn’t use surveys; I relied entirely on public online sources. This turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be–and produced a much more complete dataset than surveys do. With Ohio’s bar directory, employer websites, directories like LinkedIn, and other sources (e.g., alumni stories published online by law schools), I found a December 2014 job for 1,137 graduates or 93.7% of the population. I explain in the paper why the remaining 6.3% are most likely unemployed (for some, I found direct evidence of that) or serve as a proxy for the percentage unemployed.

Enough of the preliminaries. What did I find? First, it’s hard to read the job histories without feeling great sadness for the Class of 2010. Sure, many of them have ended up in decent jobs. Some may even hold their dream job. But they’ve had (and are still having) a very tough time. Almost a tenth bill themselves as “solo practitioners,” although I found no evidence of an active practice (such as a website) for half of them. At best, these solos are struggling to establish themselves at an early stage of their careers. At worst, they’re unemployed job seekers doing occasional legal work for friends.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the graduates have switched jobs at least once in four years–that’s twice the rate of turnover that AJD reported for the Class of 2000 during their early careers. Among those who changed jobs, the average number of jobs was 2.7–almost three jobs in just four years. Before you shake your head over those peripatetic millennials, note that median job tenure for 25-34-year-olds nationally is 3.0 years; the millennials actually stick to their jobs somewhat longer than young adults did before 2010.

It’s easy to talk about the job market from the comfort of well paid, tenured positions. It’s a lot harder to be out there in the trenches. Before we talk more about numbers, let’s recognize the fortitude (and ongoing struggles) of the people in the Class of 2010 and other recent classes.

Structural Change

I will write a series of posts highlighting different parts of my findings, but here’s the bottom line: I found strong evidence of structural changes in the employment market. Here are the top indicators:

1. The Class of 2010 graduated almost five years ago, a year after the Great Recession officially ended. It has been a slow and jobless recovery, but there have been signs of growth for quite some time now. There are certainly clients hiring lawyers: the top-earning lawyers are doing very nicely, and a wide range of alternative-service providers are prospering. Yet recent grads are lagging in job outcomes when compared to earlier classes at a similar career point.

2. Only three-quarters of the licensed lawyers hold jobs that require a law license. After adjusting for graduates who never took or passed the bar, I estimate that no more than two-thirds of 2010 graduates work in jobs that require bar admission. We can argue about whether future students will be willing to invest in law school for early-career jobs that don’t use their full education and licensing (I don’t believe they will). It’s clear, however, that the percentage of recent law graduates practicing law has been declining for some time. Whether that makes you smile or weep, it’s a shift in the market.

3. Only 40.4% of the licensed graduates work in law firms, a barely perceptible increase over the 39.5% of the class who reported those jobs nine months after graduation. In fact, the 40.4% almost certainly masks a decrease in law firm employment, because I obtained data only on licensed lawyers; the 9-month figure includes all law school graduates. Even at 40.4%, this is a striking figure. Despite four years of experience and economic recovery, the Class of 2010 made no headway in securing law firm jobs.

4. The low level of law firm employment is even more remarkable when compared to outcomes for the Class of 2000, which was tracked by the AJD study. That class graduated into relatively good economic times, but weathered a recession and jobless recovery during their first years in the profession. When the class reported their three-year outcomes to AJD in late 2002 and 2003, national unemployment levels were actually higher than when I identified jobs held by the Class of 2010 in December 2014. Yet 62.1% of the Class of 2000 practiced law with a firm three years after graduation–compared to just 40.4% of the Class of 2010 four years out. That’s a phenomenal drop of almost twenty-two percentage points.

5. The shift in law firm employment was not due solely (or perhaps even primarily) to changes in BigLaw employment patterns. Ohio, like most states, is not home to a law school ranked among the US Not-News top twenty. Yet we have all of those tasty BigLaw offices and all types of other employers. After the crash, did elite law school graduates jump to Ohio, taking our best jobs and creating a market cascade? I once thought that might be the case, but the evidence says otherwise. The number of elite school graduates passing the Ohio bar actually peaked in 2007–and was low even then. The changes we are seeing in lawyer employment are systemic; they arise from shifts at many levels of the job market.

There’s More

Much more, but I’ll save those data for another day. Meanwhile, you’ll find the full paper here.

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  • kindasorta

    I assume the million-dollar JD premium will simply start later for the class of 2010, as it has for my class the following year.

  • Benjamin Barros

    This is an interesting and important study. Thanks for taking the time to do it. I will likely have more comments after I have fully digested it, but based on my first read I had a couple of comments.

    (1) I worry about some of the conclusions that you draw from the comparison with the class of 2000. The comparison is interesting and useful, especially in the decline in large law firm jobs both at 9 months after graduation and later. As you know, I accept the idea that the legal industry is going through long-term structural change, but that I think that the poor state of the current job market likely is more due to economic factors than structural change. The economic context of the classes of 2000 and 2010 is different enough that I’m not persuaded that the comparison between them supports the structural change view more than the economic view. There was a modest recession in the early 2000s, but it didn’t have any real impact on legal employment. The financial crisis had a much greater impact on employment. Comparing 2000 and 2010 on the BLS charts that I included in a blog post illustrates the very different legal job markets in 2000 and 2010:

    http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2014/09/bureau-of-labor-statistics-legal-jobs-2004-2014.html

    It is true that the recession ended a while ago, but we have had a recovery that featured low job growth until recently. If legal employment tracks larger economic employment, then it isn’t surprising that we haven’t seen a dramatic improvement yet.

    (2) On the real estate title company point, I don’t think that you can completely discount these jobs because that general category can be filled with people with B.A.s. Title work has been moving from law firms into specialized companies. This work is increasingly commoditized, and fits in the overall picture of structural change. But I think that the work that people with J.D.s do in this context often is very different than that done by people with B.A.s. There is a spectrum of work in these contexts. Some doesn’t require any legal education. Some requires a J.D. Some is in between, requiring some legal education but less than a J.D. The compliance sector is similar. You note (p. 39) that some large law firm associates left their firms to take jobs in compliance and mineral leasing. I’m confident that these jobs are well compensated and require a high degree of legal sophistication. I’m guessing that we agree more than we disagree on this category of jobs, but I think that you discount them a bit too much.

    (3) On p. 59, you argue that the study results “suggest that the changes sweeping the legal profession are affecting employment in all work settings, not just at the largest firms in the biggest markets.” Could you elaborate on this point a bit? I didn’t really see that in the numbers in your study, and I’m not sure how it follows from a lack of mobility among graduates from highly-ranked schools.

    • Congress Made This

      “…but that I think that the poor state of the current job market likely is more due to economic factors than structural change.” So, Ben, when have “economic factors” existed for long enough that one should deem them “structural” (by which I can only assume you mean ‘permanent’)? Love the semantics, when we’re talking about real peoples’ real lives and real suffering.

      I can go look at Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the Legal Services Sector too…I can see that it peaked in July of 2007 at 1.18 million, then lost 70,000 jobs through December 2009, and since then has added back only 10,000, and is still net down 60,000 from that Great Recession that ended back in ’09, and only some number less than 10,000 was a job practicing law.

      I can see that a present estimate of 6.3% total unemployment [i.e. no damn income except possibly unemployment benefits] among licensed attorneys exceeds the national unemployment rate which fell below 6.3% 1 year ago. HMM…

      I know that that large chunk of self-employed, solo practitioners don’t get unemployment benefits when business dries up or they give up. I know the ladies who drop out of the workforce because they are pregnant or taking care of children did not get any law school loans they have forgiven in light of their full-time jobs as mothers. I know that the likely repayment of those federal student loans lent to law students in the State of Ohio is piss poor.

      • kindasorta

        It is possible to disagree with Prof. Barros without making it about personalities, especially their worth as measured by the law school that taught or employed them.

        This was a bulls**t tactic in 2010 when the conventional wisdom ran the other way and every complaint about the job market was met with derision because only losers couldn’t make a JD work for them in any economy whatsoever. Shift in conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it is still bulls**t.

        • DeborahMerritt

          I agree with you about the last paragraph of the post from “Congress Made This.” I apply FRE 403 to this site and the ad hominem attack outweighed any probative value of the paragraph. I deleted that paragraph.

    • kindasorta

      If you want me to believe that it’s unfair to discount JD Advantage positions as reasonable outcomes for law students, provide a single example of an employer advertising a job that can be done by a BA for which an employer will offer more for a JD and a JD alone (i.e., no experience practicing law, even in an unrelated field).

      I have no problem believing that there are non-practicing jobs for lawyers that pay as well as practicing law. I do have a problem believing that those employers would hire JDs without practice experience to do them, especially in a buyer’s market for lawyers with practice experience. I also have a problem believing that employers whose hiring criteria are fulfilled by a BA will pay more for JDs to do the same work.

  • Barry_D

    Thanks for doing this!

  • Jovah

    I graduated in 2008, took the July bar exam, and then watched the economy step into free fall for a while, so I emphatically relate. I finally gave up looking for jobs in the legal field after several years (and a couple thousand applications) and at this late hour, nobody is interested in me. I continue to pay my membership fees and attend my yearly CLEs solely so I can hold myself out as an attorney, but I feel like anything but; I handle only a few legal matters a year and work multiple jobs that pay little better than minimum wage. I was far better off before I went to law school and deeply regret the decision and the resulting debt that has grown from manageable to life-crushing over the intervening years.

  • Pingback: Law Schools Cooking the Books on Employment Data? | Mississippi Litigation Review & Commentary()

  • James Lindgren

    Deborah:

    I’ve just glanced at the study so far, but it looks very good to me. Thanks very much for doing it.

    Jim Lindgren
    Northwestern Univ.

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