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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