The Talent

May 20, 2010 10:40 AM

NALP Employment Numbers: What to Believe?

Posted by Zach Lowe

Give NALP credit for this: They are not trying to sugarcoat the employment statistics for the law school class of 2009, which are better than anticipated at first glance. The overall employment rate for those bushy-tailed '09 graduates was 88.3 percent as of mid-February, which is down from a 91.9 percent employment rate at the same stage after graduation for the class of 2007, according to NALP data, to be released later today.

That 88.3 percent figure is the lowest for any class since the mid-1990s, NALP says, but it seems pretty darn high given the doom and gloom surrounding the legal market amid the broader economic collapse. 

But of course, that number is not accurate on its own, and NALP acknowledges that the 88.3 figure masks the true state of the legal market for the class of 2009. Many more jobs that qualify as "employment" for the purposes of the NALP survey are actually temporary, including 41 percent of all public interest jobs, many of which are undoubtedly tied to deferrals from big firms. Overall, 25 percent of all jobs reported to NALP are temporary, and more than 10 percent of all reported jobs are part-time, up from 6 percent for the class of 2008, NALP reports. 

There is more: A ton of students are getting postgraduate jobs at their law schools, a majority of which are temporary, and those positions played a big role in boosting the overall employment percentage to 88.3 percent, NALP says. Overall, NALP estimates that law schools created about 800 jobs for 2009 grads, bumping up the overall employment rate by about two percentage points. "At the high end," NALP says, "those jobs can account for up to 50 jobs on a single campus."

Want more context? Nearly one-quarter (about 22 percent) of 2009 graduates who have jobs are looking for different jobs, up from 16 percent for the class of 2008 in the same period last year, NALP reports. Fewer 2009 graduates are working in jobs that require law degrees, and more than 1,000 class of 2009 grads who reported employment at a private firm are actually working as solo practitioners. The raw number of reported solo practitioners jumped by about 375 as compared with the class of 2008, and that jump alone accounts for about one percentage point in the reported 88.3 percent employment rate, NALP says.

So the big question for 2009 graduates is not necessarily what their employment numbers look like now. It's this: What will they look like when all of those temporary and part-time jobs disappear? 

A total of 192 ABA-accredited law schools participated in the survey, accounting for about 41,000 class of 2009 graduates--or about 93 percent of all graduates from ABA-accredited law schools in the U.S., NALP says.

Contact Zach Lowe at

Photo: Getty Images

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The question shouldn't be "What will the numbers look like when the temp/PT jobs disappear?" Those "jobs" don't ever disappear: lawyers (newly minted, forced out, relocating, retired) are hired in bulk at $22/hr, and once "in the system," are hard pressed to climb out (thanks to law school debt load) and get stuck scurrying from job to job as one doc review "project" closes and the next opens up. As BigLaw becomes increasingly aware of new ways to milk this cash cow by the targeted marketing efforts of the doc review/electronic discovery software vendors, bulk purchase of cut-rate doc reviewers with law degrees and bar admissions is a high-growth industry segment, but it shouldn't be confused with lawyering. NALP and others who publish statistics on the "job" market for lawyers need to be more forthright in reporting the numbers in this attrocious, and growing, sweatshop segment of the legal "profession." And while they're at it, they can also break out the law school grads who go solo by geography (solos in major metropolitan areas face stiff competition from established firms, large and small), by how many have clients v. how many are trying to get clients, and by how many are merely incorporated doc reviewers. Properly categorized, I doubt that anywhere near 80% of the class of '09 is employed in anything dimly approaching true attorney positions.

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