Some evidence that big firm law jobs have not "dried up" for top law school graduates

Today's New York Times includes a story about challenges confronting legal education with a specific emphasis on the situation at Valparaiso. There are many points raised throughout the article, including various problems facing schools and their graduates. I do not want to spend much time (yet!) on most of the details--undoubtedly, schools and graduates continue to face mounting challenges have not received sufficient remedies. But one purported cause of the current crisis struck me as rather curious:

A decade ago, a large majority of graduates from the top 10 to 15 law schools who wanted full-time work at a big law firm could get it, said Paul F. Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has written extensively [Ed.: link to a story from 2011 omitted] about the economic prospects of recent law school graduates.

With big-firm jobs drying up, however, many of these graduates began competing for lower-paying spots at midsize firms, which also downsized, and certain government jobs they wouldn’t have sought in an earlier era.

“That takes those jobs off the table,” Mr. Campos said. “It has ripple effects all the way throughout the profession, so that a small law firm in northwest Indiana can say to recent grads: ‘We want you to work for free. We won’t pay you.’”

Law schools, for their part, seem strangely oblivious to all this.

This didn't strike me as accurately describing the situation confronting law schools in the year 2016. So I did a little digging into the ABA's Employment Statistics database.

As background, there is no question that the economic recession dramatically impacted the legal profession as a whole. Early 2009 was particularly brutal--from a "black Thursday" in February to massive layoffs at some of the largest firms in the country. This undoubtedly had trickle-down effects to summer associate and entry-level hiring for the classes graduating at and shortly after this time. But did such a bleak picture permanently alter elite hiring from elite schools?

I drew from the ABA data about the Classes of 2011 through 2015. (The Class of 2010 data is not reported in a similar format, and the Class of 2016 data will not be released until next spring.) I looked at the outcomes of thirteen "elite" schools over that time--Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, Penn, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale. (One can quibble about whether the list should be more or less inclusive, of course, but I thought this would fit in the range of the "top 10 to 15.")

I used four categories of jobs: full-time, long-term positions at firms with 101 to 250 attorneys, 251 to 500 attorneys, and 501 or more attorneys, as well as full-time, long-term (which includes one-year terms) federal judicial clerkships, a rough category of "elite" placement. There are, of course, caveats to all these categories. "Full-time, long-term" positions at firms may include project or staff attorneys rather than associate-level positions--which may mask some numbers if such positions have disproportionately increased in recent years. Federal judicial clerkships may not include equally "elite" value in the perception of graduates and employers. They are, admittedly, rough categories.

  101-250 251-500 501+ Clerkships Elite jobs Total Grads Percentage
Class of 2011 157 270 1473 512 2412 4140 58.3%
Class of 2012 159 312 1769 515 2755 4203 65.5%
Class of 2013 146 261 1902 506 2815 4205 66.9%
Class of 2014 150 279 1939 522 2890 4161 69.5%
Class of 2015 130 332 1866 511 2839 4015 70.7%

We can see that the total numbers of graduates have been fairly stable, but are at a lower ebb at the moment. Job placement as a percentage of the graduating class, however, continues in what I might call the "large majority" of graduates, most recently over 70%. Things have improved since the Class of 2011 (which was engaged in on-campus interviewing in the Fall of 2009, shortly after the brunt of layoffs hit law firms). These figures aren't masked by federal judicial clerkship placement, either, which has held remarkably steads at slightly over 500 clerks per graduating class. (And this category excludes "J.D. advantage" positions, which might be of dubious value, but perhaps have more value at these elite schools--consider the volume of placement of Harvard graduates into coveted positions at places like McKinsey and Bain.)

To show the relative improvement in both raw positions and in percentage placement, consider the charts visualizing those figures below. (Please note that they are non-zero y-axes to illustrate relative change rather than absolute performance.)

It might be that law schools are "strangely oblivious" to this trend because the trend, in ll likelihood, doesn't exist. There are undoubtedly many challenges facing "non-elite" law schools (and even "elite" law schools), ranging from indebtedness of graduates, to bar passage rates of those with declining predictors, to securing meaningful employment for graduates. But the notion that a principal cause of the crisis facing schools like Valparaiso and others is a result of a loss of placement of elite law school graduates into elite big law firm positions resulting in increased competition at "lower-paying spots at midsize firms . . . and certain government jobs they wouldn't have sought in an earlier era" is, I think, from my examination of the evidence, not accurate.