We try to provide some balance in our coverage of law schools. Last night, for example, we posted our latest round of law school success stories, to balance some of the more depressing fare in our pages — such as the $10K a year lawyer job being offered to Boston College Law School students, which the law school defended vigorously.

At the same time, we have to report the reality that’s before us. And that reality isn’t always pretty.

Which brings us to today’s topic, the latest employment data from our friends at the National Association for Law Placement (NALP)….

When he covered last year’s NALP job data, my colleague Elie Mystal observed that the class of 2010 graduates did even worse than the class of 2009 — no small feat, given how rough a year 2009 was for legal employment. So it’s impressive, in an admittedly perverse way, that the class of 2011 fared even worse on the employment front than the class of 2010.

The title of the NALP press release says it all: “Law School Grads Face Worst Job Market Yet – Less Than Half Find Jobs in Private Practice.” Here are the grim details:

According to Selected Findings from the Employment Report and Salary Survey for the Class of 2011 released today by NALP, the overall employment rate for new law school graduates is, at 85.6%, the lowest it has been since 1994, when the rate stood at 84.7%. In addition to an overall employment rate that fell two percentage points from that for the previous class, and that has dropped each year since 2008, the Class of 2011 employment figures reveal a job market with many underlying structural weaknesses. The employment profile for this class also marks a continued interruption of employment patterns for new law school graduates that had, prior to 2010, been undisturbed for decades.

As noted by Constitutional Daily, “these are the worst numbers in nearly 20 years. The number of graduates [who obtained jobs in private practice] dropped to less than half, 49.5%, something that has not happened since 1975.”

And remember that, with respect to the general economy, the recession technically ended in June 2009. We’ve been (theoretically) in “recovery” since then. And yet the class of 2010 did worse than the class of 2009, and the class of 2011 did worse than the class of 2010.

Should the class of 2011 “known better” than to go to law school? Not really, when you consider the information that was available to them at the time:

In commentary accompanying the Selected Findings, NALP Executive Director James Leipold noted, “For members of the Class of 2011, caught as they were in the worst of the recession, entering law school in the fall of 2008 just as Lehman Brothers collapsed, going through OCI in the fall of 2009, and summering in 2010 if they were lucky enough to secure a summer associate spot, the entry-level job market can only be described as brutal. 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, and yet by the time they graduated they faced what was arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years.”

Oh, and that top-line number of almost 15 percent of graduates finding themselves unemployed — i.e., not working at all, even in non-legal jobs — isn’t the end of the bad news:

[T]he overall employment rate of 85.6% of graduates for whom employment status was known actually conceals a number of negative trends in the job market that were first apparent for the Class of 2009 but have since become more prominent. For instance, of those graduates for whom employment was known, only 65.4% obtained a job for which bar passage is required. This figure has fallen over 9 percentage points just since 2008 — when it was 74.7% — and is the lowest percentage NALP has ever measured….

The percentage of jobs reported as part-time stood at almost 12%, up from about 11% in 2009 and 2010, and in contrast to 6.5% for 2008 and about 5% in the years immediately prior to that. Almost 7% of jobs were both temporary (defined as lasting less than a year) and part-time. As was the case in 2010, 3% of 2011 graduates were continuing their academic studies full-time, leaving 12.1% who were neither working nor continuing their studies as of February 15, 2012.

According to the data, Biglaw continues to shrink, as Constitutional Daily notes:

Only 16.2% of graduates in private practice (or 8% of all graduates) found jobs at firms with 501 or more attorneys, down from the already depressed rate of 20.5% for the class of 2010. 42.9% of graduates are now at firms with 2-10 attorneys. The number of graduates in solo practices is also up, from 3.3% in 2008 to 6.0%.

Despite the existence of resources out there for solo practitioners, going solo right out of law school can be risky. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Solo by choice (affiliate link)? Probably not.

Let’s look on the bright side. “This class may represent the bottom of the employment curve for this economic cycle,” said Jim Leipold of NALP. “Our fall recruiting data from the last two years indicate that at least recruiting activity for the Classes of 2012 and 2013 increased, if somewhat modestly.”

But that’s just a small ray of hope. And it’s subject to the caveat that there not be “another significant national or international economic setback.” Given the shaky state of Europe right now, that’s by no means guaranteed.

For all the depressing details, check out the three-page “Selected Findings” over at NALP.

Law School Grads Face Worst Job Market Yet – Less Than Half Find Jobs in Private Practice [NALP]
Employment for the Class of 2011 – Selected Findings [NALP]
Class of 2011 Places Even Worse Than 2010 [Constitutional Daily]

Earlier: Somebody Forgot To Tell Boston College Career Services Officers That BC Law Grads Enjoy A ‘Median’ Starting Salary of $160,000 In Private Practice
Law School Writes in Defense of Jobs With Salaries Below Minimum Wage
Latest Job Data From NALP Confirm That Class of 2010 Is Lost
New NALP Numbers Are Out — and as Bad as Ever


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