When Will Graduates = Jobs?

November 22nd, 2013 / By

* Updated to reflect sources

Professor Paula Young, of the Appalachian School of Law, predicts that the number of full-time jobs for law graduates will exceed the number of graduates by 2016. Excluding nonprofessional jobs from the tally, she calculates that sufficient full-time jobs will be available for JD grads by 2017. Are the calculations correct?

Unfortunately, no. The errors are somewhat understandable, because the ABA tables are hard to follow. The mistake is evident, however, because Professor Young reports the Class of 2012–rather than the Class of 2013–as the largest law school graduating class.

In this post I update Professor Young’s calculations, using the appropriate ABA data. I also, as Professor Young does, compare those forecasts with the number of jobs that were available for the Class of 2012. I then take her analysis one step further by making more realistic assumptions about the jobs that future graduates are likely to seek.

How Many JD Graduates?

The ABA reports annually both first-year enrollments in accredited JD programs and the degrees awarded by those programs. The table, as noted above, is awkward to read: Each line reports the first-year enrollment for that academic year, together with the degrees awarded during the prior academic year. This is a silly way to report data, but that’s what we have.

Using the ABA data, here are the first-year enrollment and graduation figures for the Classes of 2010 through 2012. Like Professor Young, I assume that all students graduate in three years–an assumption that does little to distort overall trends:

Class of 2010: 49,082 students entered; 44,258 graduated.
Class of 2011: 49,414 students entered; 44,495 graduated.
Class of 2012: 51,646 students entered; 46,478 graduated.

Note that the graduation rate for each of those classes was 90%, a little higher than the 88% that Professor Young estimates. I found the same rate for the classes of 2008 and 2009 (as far back as I checked), so I use a 90% rate when predicting future degree totals.

The ABA has already reported the number of students who entered law school for the graduating Classes of 2013 through 2015, but we don’t yet know the number who did (or will) receive degrees. Using the 90% graduation rate from recent classes, here are the predicted numbers of graduates:

Class of 2013: 52,488 students entered; predict 47,239 graduates.
Class of 2014: 48,697 students entered; predict 43,827 graduates.
Class of 2015: 44,481 students entered; predict 40,033 graduates.

Now let’s peer further into the future. Assuming, as Professor Young does, that entering classes will decrease steadily by 8% a year, while graduation rates will remain steady, I project the following numbers of JD graduates:

Class of 2016: 40,923 students entered; 36,264 will graduate.
Class of 2017: 37,649 students will enter; 33,884 will graduate.
Class of 2018: 34,637 students will enter; 31,173 will graduate.
Class of 2019: 31,866 students will enter; 28,679 will graduate.
Class of 2020: 29,317 students will enter; 26,385 will graduate.
Class of 2021: 26,972 students will enter; 24,275 will graduate.

My projected figures are about 9.4% higher than those calculated by Professor Young; the difference stems primarily from the fact that she attributed the all-time high enrollment of 52,488 students (who entered in the fall of 2010) to the Class of 2012 rather than the Class of 2013. If current trends in law school applications and admissions continue, the number of JDs will fall–but not quite as quickly as Professor Young predicts. Our current 1Ls will generate about 36,264 JDs in 2016, not the 33,145 that Professor Young calculatedd.

How will the number of graduates compare to the number of available jobs? Let’s take a look, using Professor Young’s assumption that future jobs will parallel the ones available to the Class of 2012.

Full-Time Jobs in 2012

NALP reports that members of the Class of 2012 held 33,759 full-time jobs nine months after graduation. That’s not enough jobs to employ the projected Class of 2016, which will include about 36,264 JDs. About 7% of that class–our current first-years–will lack full-time employment nine months after graduation.

Equally important, NALP’s full-time total masks several weaknesses in the job market. As Professor Young acknowledges, the total includes 330 nonprofessional jobs (such as retail sales) and 53 jobs of unknown character. If we exclude those jobs, the Class of 2012 secured 33,376 full-time jobs. That number won’t be enough to satisfy projected graduates in either 2016 or 2017.

But there’s more. Even the ABA omits “other professional” jobs from its summary of law school outcomes. Those jobs include elementary and secondary teachers, debt collectors, performing artists, and self-employed writers–all jobs that may satisfy the worker, but don’t draw upon a law degree or (in most cases) help repay the debt from that degree.

If we eliminate “other professional” jobs from consideration, the number of full-time jobs for the Class of 2012 falls to 31,606. For our current 1Ls, that means about 4,658 graduates (12.8% of the class) will lack full-time law-related employment nine months after graduation. For the Class of 2017, 2,278 graduates (6.7%) will fail to find full-time jobs related to their law degree. The jobs won’t match projected graduates until February of 2019, when the Class of 2018 reports its results.

Yet even that calculation is overly optimistic. “Full-time” jobs include short-term positions, those that will last for less than a year. Professionals don’t survive on temporary work; they aim to move on to full-time positions. When they do, however, they compete with students from the next graduating class. To match graduates to jobs, we need to look at full-time jobs that will last a year or more. The Class of 2012 found only 30,453 full-time, long-term jobs that drew upon their law degrees (either by requiring bar admission or offering a JD advantage).

That number of jobs won’t satisfy even a very slimmed-down Class of 2018. Even if law school enrollment continues to drop 8% per year, a daunting prospect for law school budgets, we won’t be able to celebrate a match between graduates and jobs until the spring of 2020, when the Class of 2019 registers its employment results.

Will JD Advantage Still Count?

All of the above calculations assume that future JDs will be satisfied with JD Advantage jobs. That seems like a dubious assumption. We know that recent graduates have not been satisfied with those jobs. Among 2011 graduates, 46.8% of those with JD Advantage jobs reported that they were seeking other work. (This figure comes from NALP surveys, although NALP does not publish the “seeking other work” figures online. For further discussion, see this post.) Graduates have been taking JD Advantage jobs to survive, but they are not satisfied with those positions.

In the future, this is even more likely to be true. As the cost of law school has mounted and the job market has tightened, pre-law advisers, the media, and even legal educators have advised students: “Go to law school only if you know you want to be a lawyer or have another well formulated plan for using a law degree.” That advice makes sense in the current climate–and it means that future graduates are even more likely than current ones to expect full-time, long-term positions that require bar admission.

The Class of 2012 found only 26,066 of those jobs. Assuming that law school enrollment continues to drop 8% a year, while jobs remain steady, when will all law school graduates be able to find full-time, long-term jobs that require bar admission?


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