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US employment figures at 18-year low for legal profession

Posted by: Laurence Simons 14/06/12

Better than other graduates, worse than every other graduate since 1994.

Graduates employment figures released in the US this month make unpleasant reading for, well, everyone: the number of law school graduates from the Class of 2011 in employment is at an 18-year low. 

As NALP figures show, less than half of the freshly-cooked batch of legal cookies that make up the Class of '11 have found jobs in private practice, while the overall employment rate for new law graduates was 85.6 per cent. Compared to the latest benchmark graduate employment statistics in the USA (56 per cent, according to Labor Department data), the employment figure looks pretty good: compared to every other graduating class as far back as 1994, it doesn't.

"When this class took their LSATs and applied for law school there were no signs that the legal economic boom was showing any signs of slowing," said NALP (formerly the National Association for Law Placements) executive director James Leipold. "And yet by the time they graduated they faced what was arguably the world entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years."

As the National Law Journal noted, only two-thirds of recent law graduates are in a role that requires a suit, a briefcase and to opportunity to shout "objection!" - just 66 per cent were in a job that required bar membership, down nine per cent since 2008. As for the rest? Making up the numbers in jobs that don't require a law degree, back in school, or straight-up unemployed.

And, more pertinently, loaded with debt: the aggregated debt of the Cooley graduating class last year is an estimated $100 million. That's not just bad news for Cooley graduates tending bar or making mochas - it's bad news for the federal loans system, too.

Following the release of 'the Leonard Cohen of postgraduate employment figures', it seems law schools in the US are taking steps to minimise the bloated snake-eating-itself model of students loading themselves with debt (an average $100,000) and then being released into an unforgiving employment market.

How? As the Wall Street Journal reports, by making an unprecedented move and making cuts to admissions: at least ten of the 200 law schools in the US are facing shrinking class sizes for the next cohort. "This looks like it's a big structural shift," says Indiana University law professor William Henderson. "Law schools don't think this is going to bounce back."