It depends. Your view of the direction of the job market for summer and entry-level associates will depend upon which metrics you focus on. That seems to be the bottom line of the latest findings from the good folks over at the National Association for Law Placement (NALP).
The overall outlook seems to be… muddled. Some indicators are up a little; some indicators are down a little. Things appear a bit flat — which is not that different from last year.
But I’m finding (or trying to find) reasons for optimism. Hear me out….
Let’s start with the study. Here’s a summary, from the NALP press release:
In the fall of 2013, for the fifth year in a row, law firms continued to engage in limited entry-level hiring. With the large law firm business model still facing significant challenges five years after the Great Recession, recruiting volumes by U.S. law firms on the campuses of U.S. law schools remained mostly flat during the late summer and early fall of 2013 compared with recruiting activity the year before. There were variations by region and by city, but overall law firms continued to exhibit caution in recruiting new associates….
In general, law firms continue to bring in small summer classes, though the average summer class size rose to its highest level since 2009. Offer rates coming out of summer programs nearly equaled pre-recession highs, but since summer classes were smaller, the overall number of offers remained proportionately smaller as well.
For members of the Class of 2014, those who were summer associates in 2013, the offer rate for entry-level associate positions following those summer programs rose about two percentage points to 92% from 90% the previous year. This is a huge change from the stark offer rate of only 69% measured in 2009, and is only a single percentage point from the historic 93% offer rates recorded in 2006 and 2007.
So that’s good news. As for the class one year behind them, i.e., current 2Ls:
For members of the Class of 2015, those who went through the OCI process in the fall of 2013, the markers… describe a mostly flat market. Across employers of all sizes, the median number of offers extended stayed at 8 for the second year in a row after having fallen from 10 in 2011, but the mean number of offers rose from 20 to 27, again reflecting that the growth that is happening seems to be happening at some of the firms with larger summer programs. These 2L recruiting numbers remain higher than the historic lows of 7 (median) and 16 (average) measured in 2009, but remain well below the figures of 15 and 39 recorded in 2007. The percent of callback interviews resulting in offers for summer positions rose about three percentage points, from 44% to 47%, and remained well above the historic low of 36% recorded in 2009. However, this marker likewise remains considerably below the offer rates of 60% and 63% measured in 2007 and 2006 respectively.
I actually see this as good news too. I don’t find comparisons to the pre-recession world very relevant nowadays (a point I made when Elie and I debated the latest Cravath bonuses). The pre-2008 legal employment world was a dream, followed by a nightmare (the Great Recession), followed by waking up to reality — aka the “new normal.” Now that we are wide awake, there isn’t much point to saying, “Wasn’t that a nice dream?” The dream is over; more than five years have passed since the fall of Lehman. It’s time for us to get over it and move on.
“We have seen some bobbling in recruiting volumes this past fall,” said James Leipold, NALP’s Executive Director, “with some numbers that point to increased recruiting volumes and some that suggest decreased volume…. [M]ost of the markers that we track have more or less flat-lined for the last several years.”
And here is why I think “flat” really might be the new “up.” Over the past few years, as reflected in the NALP data, the entry-level legal job market has been treading water; the total number of openings at the types of large law firms that have summer programs hasn’t budged much. But you know what has budged? Law school enrollment. As we recently noted, national 1L enrollment is down 24 percent since 2010, as schools shrink their entering class sizes.
My colleague Staci Zaretsky sounded some snarky notes about the news, but I view it as positive. If law schools are wisely “rightsizing” themselves, while the legal job market remains largely stable (neither shrinking nor growing a great deal), the result should be higher employment among law school graduates.
Now, I don’t want to oversell this point. I wouldn’t call the J.D. a million-dollar degree. I don’t think people should go to law school for purely economic reasons. You should go to law school because you’ve made an informed decision that you want to be a practicing lawyer, taking into account all the risks involved (including debt and unemployment).
But for someone who goes to law school anyway, a static job market combined with falling law school enrollment should (hopefully) improve the chances of a decent employment outcome. The entry-level job market might not be a milkshake — that was 2006 and 2007, and those days are gone — but maybe it’s a glass of water, half-full.
Entry-level Law Firm Recruiting Remains Mostly Flat [NALP]
Perspectives On Fall 2013 Law Student Recruiting [NALP]
Summer-associate recruiting stays mostly flat, but offer rates rise, NALP says [ABA Journal]