Just how many law grads become lawyers?

The primary purpose of law school is to train lawyers—that seems to make sense.  But recent data indicate that a surprising number of law school graduates do not end up practicing law straight out of school.  Prof. Brian Tamanaha, who writes frequently about legal education, portrays these numbers in stark fashion:

[F]or the class of 2009 (nine months after graduation), at 30 law schools, only 50 percent or fewer of the graduates obtained jobs as lawyers. At nearly 90 law schools, one-third or more of graduates did not land jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation.

Click through for more elaboration on the numbers, as well as a list of the schools with the lowest lawyer-employment rates.  (Prof. Tamanaha based his analysis on number provided by Law School Transparency, which in turn got the numbers from US News);  Prof. Tamanaha casts this situation as a failure of the law schools to adequately place their students in the kinds of jobs for which they went to law school.  He makes the very reasonable assumption that students attend law school solely to become lawyers.

In the comments to the blog post, several people (including myself) question this assumption, but his basic point is valid: far fewer law grads become lawyers than most people assume. Those who don’t become lawyers fall into three categories: those who never intended to become lawyers, but went to law school for another purpose; those who initially thought they’d be lawyers, but changed their minds while in school; and those who would like to be lawyers, but can’t find work in the field.  The critical (and unanswered) question is how many people fall into each of these groups?

Prof. Tamanaha assumes that those who can’t find work are the biggest group, and there are many reasons to agree with him.  Without doubt, we know the job market for new lawyers is not as good as it once was.  But just how many law grads are still actively looking for lawyer work nine months after graduation remains an open question.

I asked representatives of two of the schools listed in Prof. Tamanaha’s post—New England Law / Boston, and Western New England University School of Law—to respond to the report, since they are such popular schools for UMass students and alumni.

Michelle L’Etoile, the Director of Admissions at New England, had this to say:

·    While the legal employment market has been challenging for several years, it is important to remember that the worldwide financial crisis has impacted almost every sector of the economy, and hiring numbers are down in almost all fields.

·    Employers who hire New England Law graduates report a very high level of satisfaction with their training and skill level.  New England Law graduates are well-prepared for the work place, as evidenced by the July 2010 bar pass rate of 94% and the extensive practical skills experience most have during law school.

·    Not all individuals who graduate from law school intend or want to practice law.  Jobs for which a J.D. is the preferred degree and where the work is connected to the legal field are a good match for many graduates.

·    New England Law is very aggressive in building connections with employers and supporting its graduates in finding employment.  It is the only law school in Boston to offer its graduating class complimentary memberships to the Boston Bar Association to assist with their networking.

·    For the Class of 2009, 63.7% of graduates were in jobs that require or rely on their law school training.  Of these, 52.9% were employed in bar passage-required jobs (e.g. practicing attorneys, law clerks), and 10.8% were in J.D.-preferred jobs (e.g. accounting firm, management consulting firm, or law school or law firm administration).  An additional 7.1% were in other professional jobs, in which their legal training may be an asset.

·    We anticipate that as the overall economy improves, more job openings that require bar passage or rely on legal training will become available.

·    Increased transparency in reporting employment data and claims is an important goal for legal education.  With that information available, it is the responsibility of each prospective student to determine whether law school is a good career decision.

Prof. William Childs, the Associate Dean for External Affairs at Western New England responded as follows:

The data is what it is, and we pride ourselves on providing our outcomes in a straightforward way.  You can in fact see the full look at our 2010 data at:

http://www1.wne.edu/assets/14/Employment_Stats_2010.pdf

We wish it was a better picture for our grads and for grads of law schools all over the country, but we think it’s important to provide that information (and have done so for several years).

A couple of comments on the post itself.  First, it’s of course not entirely true that everyone who attends law school does so to become a lawyer.  Some students (including some I’ve had) come in with the plan of getting the background to be helpful in an already-existing career (insurance, etc.).  Others decide while in law school to go another route.  For those students, law school was a benefit, not a disappointment.  But certainly, more of our graduates want and need jobs than have them.

Second, I’ll observe that we already did exactly what he suggests immediately after the data—we intentionally reduced (significantly) the entering class and expect to continue to have smaller classes for the foreseeable future.

I expect you already give your students the advice I’d give: don’t go to law school because you can’t think of something else to do.  Go only if you really want to be a lawyer (or have another purpose for that degree).  Examine the finances carefully—remember that most schools have robust scholarship programs (including ours), and that there are a lot of income-based repayment options.  But also remember that law is a lifelong career, and the JD is relevant not just nine months after graduation, but for the rest of your life.  We do firmly believe the market will turn around.

So, as I’ve urged you before, look at these numbers, take them seriously, but also inquire further—of the law schools themselves, and of new watchdog groups like Law School Transparency. Research this decision to go to law school the best that you are able.

UPDATE: For more of the conversation about transparency, check out the UMass Pre-Law Advising Facebook page.