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Dean’s Column: Is the Legal Job Market Finally Turning Around?

On April 26th of this year, the New York Times Dealbook ran a story titled Burdened with Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle in Job Market. Just days later, Dealbook ran another article: Slightly Higher Percentage of Law School Graduates Landed Legal Jobs, Report Says. Not exactly ringing endorsements of a recovering job market, you might say. But after years of deepening gloom, there are signs, albeit small, of a rebound.

ABA data for the Class of 2014 (the most recent class for which we have data) showed an uptick to 58.7% of graduates with full-time jobs requiring bar passage. This compares to 55.9% the year before. Unemployed and seeking fell from 11.1% to 9.5%. It’s important to note that the overall number of graduates dropped as well, as schools cut back on the size of their entering classes and the applicant pool continued to shrink. But there seems to be movement in the right direction.

At BC Law, we are seeing very encouraging signs indeed. Our graduates landing jobs requiring a JD jumped more than 10% year-over-year to 74.4%, and our overall employment rate increased to more than 90%. That jump in JD-required positions is the largest we have seen in years, and it’s being fueled, at least in part, by a subtle shift in the kinds of jobs our graduates are being offered. The number employed at law firms remained approximately the same, while we saw more positions in government and in public interest-related fields. We also saw an uptick in clerkships, business and corporate placements.

The overall US unemployment rate fell in April to 5.4%, the lowest it has been since 2008. But many argue that this is not a realistic number, since more people have stopped actively seeking employment and wage growth has not kept up with demand. Then there’s this, again from the Times: Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal, where the author argues that low wage growth and people dropping out of the job market are part of the new normal, and that our economy is “resetting” itself as a response to permanent changes that were shockingly realized during the Great Recession. In other words, our economy wasn’t working anymore under the old structures that had supported it for decades, and even as things appear to be improving, we are still churning through the difficult and often painful process of change.

In many ways, this mirrors what is happening in the legal profession. As the overall economy strengthens, we are beginning to see the results of what I believe is a permanent shift in legal services from the traditional law firm model to one that includes a much broader mix of jobs. The kinds of things an entry-level associate used to do no longer apply; technology is transforming practice, more legal research is being outsourced and more firms (and their clients) are demanding practice ready associates who will contribute in a very real, bottom-line way to the firm.

But it is not all doom and gloom. As some of these entry-level jobs shift away from the traditional law firm model, opportunities are opening up in the form of corporate in-house counsel offices, high tech and health care, international positions and public service.

That word, opportunity, is an important one. As with most things in life, we can choose to look at our current situation as a glass half empty or half full. We cannot ignore the need for sweeping changes at both law schools and the profession itself, and we must adjust how we teach to better train our graduates for the skills they will need in order to reflect this new reality. But we also must see the opportunities hidden within the maelstrom of change; jobs created out of new uses of technology, increased global migration, the complexities of a more interconnected world, and the injustices that continue to plague the weak and the marginalized.

The world will always need lawyers who advocate for those who are voiceless and who fight for justice in all its forms. Some of these positions will pay less in salary, and we must get more creative at law schools to assist with the debt cost and financial  burdens of those who choose to take them. We must also find ways to lower costs. At Boston College, we have just launched an accelerated admissions program for BC undergraduates, where well-qualified students can forgo their senior year to begin  law school and graduate with a BA and JD in 6 years, cutting a year of tuition. We plan to expand this to other undergraduate partners in the coming months.

Is the legal job market turning around? I say it is. But the paths our graduates will take are going to be different than those we chose to take when we were entering the work force. The choices that we make, as administrators and leaders in the legal profession, to reshape legal education in order to better serve this “new normal,” will make all the difference.


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