Burdened With Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle in Job Market

Jonathan Wang has not practiced law since he graduated from Columbia Law School in 2010, but he did not plan it that way.

When he entered law school, the economy was flourishing, and he had every reason to think that with a prestigious degree he was headed for a secure well-paying career. He convinced his parents, who work in Silicon Valley, that he had a plan. “I would spend three years at school in New York, then work for a big law firm and make $160,000 a year,” said Mr. Wang, 29. “And someday, I would become a partner and live the good life.”

Mr. Wang, who works in Manhattan as a tutor for the law school admissions exam, is living a life far different from the one he envisioned. And he is not alone. About 20 percent of law graduates from 2010 are working at jobs that do not require a law license, according to a new study, and only 40 percent are working in law firms, compared with 60 percent from the class a decade earlier. To pay the bills, the 2010 graduates have taken on a variety of jobs, some that do not require admission to the bar; others have struck out on their own with solo practices.

Most of the graduates have substantial student debt.

Even as law school enrollment was peaking in 2010 — reaching 52,488, according to American Bar Association figures — those who were graduating were not receiving job offers from firms where they were interning. And offers to some students were rescinded.

“None of this was on my radar,” Mr. Wang said, “but it began to be obvious by the time second-year summer internships were over. We knew things were depressed, but then the legs were cut out from under us.”

After the economic collapse in the fall of 2008, corporations began to cut their spending on legal matters, and law firms, in turn, began to reduce their hiring and even laid off employees. The legal profession was undergoing the early wave of turbulence that left graduates in subsequent classes facing a harsher job market that has shown few signs of a robust recovery. But the class of 2010 was the first to experience it full force.

At the time, legal scholars predicted that when the economy turned the corner, the new graduates would find jobs. But the checkered job outcomes for the 2010 law graduates could be predicted by their early employment numbers, said Deborah J. Merritt, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

She wrote “What Happened to the Class of 2010? Empirical Evidence of Structural Change in the Legal Profession,” a study published in March that examined the careers of those graduates and the legal marketplace.

Professor Merritt combined public data, including court records and the employment outcomes of more than 1,200 lawyers who received their law degrees in 2010 and then passed the Ohio bar, with information from the National Association of Law Placement recorded for the same class nationally. She concluded that the 2010 class had not recovered in the ensuing years.

“Employment has improved only marginally for the class,” she said, “with unemployment at 6 percent, many fewer lawyers working at law firms and a leap in the percentage of solo practitioners.

“These outcomes contrast markedly with those from the 2000 graduating class, which was also shadowed by an economic recession but were later able to better their positions,” she said. “But that type of progress has not occurred for the Class of 2010.”

With law firms cutting back, she said, most available positions “fall within modest-paying categories: solo practice, small firms, government work and business jobs that do not require bar admission”…

….And they might be the lucky ones, according to some 2010 graduates who said they were “too ashamed that I have not found a legal job” to allow their names to be mentioned. One law school graduate who said he did not want to draw attention to his lack of permanent employment said he was “doing rote legal temp work on the side to pay rent.”

“I dare not put it on my résumé because it makes you instantly nonprestigious and unemployable,” he added…

…Over all, nearly 85 percent of law graduates have taken out student loans, according to the website Law School Transparency, and 2010 law graduates accumulated debt averaging $77,364 at public law schools and $112,007 at private ones.

Many have received financial hardship deferments or, like Mr. Shirkey, who accumulated $365,000 in student debt, including some undergraduate loans, received credits for public interest work. Federal government rules, revised last year, allow student borrowers who work in nonprofit and public sector jobs to have their loans forgiven after 10 years and to pay back their college loans based on their income and expenses…

Law students are not normally associated frivolous stuff like gender studies and the like. But it seems that as in many fields, the job market has not recovered.  Companies have cut back and made do with less.  There has even been outsourcing to India for some of the routine work.

Tuition fees are high, and students are encouraged to go into debt.

This article concerns the American situation. I am unfamiliar with the specifics of Canada as far as law students go, but I doubt it is much better.  Certainly the overall student debt problem is not.

  • Hard Little Machine

    After a generation of sending people off to law school, about 35% of the graduates are successful in their job search and most of them, nearly all, wind up working in the public sector. Now 20 years ago even 10, a lawyer going into the public sector would be earning a quarter of that in a private law firm but that’s no longer true. Public sector employment pays fairly well compared to the private sector, on the whole. So while fewer people are actually getting jobs, the few that do are doing about as well working in the public vs private sector.

    Law school students are deluding themselves that they’re to get super wonderful jobs in sports/entertainment law, sports agency, white shoe law firms or VC’s. There’s just not that many openings and the few that pop up can select from anyone in the country.

    Getting in debt for law school isn’t any smarter than getting in debt for Art History. Sorry but that’s just reality. Sure there’s a few good jobs here and there but don’t count on it. And even if you get one, you’re going to be working 100 hr weeks every week for the next 6 or 7 years.

    • tom_billesley

      There is a growth area in representing invaders clients appealing against deportation or seeking compensation for being discrimineted against, but that tends to be sewn up by lawyers of similar background to the clients.

    • dance…dancetotheradio

      I have to confess that I went back to school more on faith than on certainty.
      Couldn’t do what I was doing anymore and had to get out.
      Went from living Plan B to getting back onto Plan A.
      Even though the likelihood of having to leave my family and go up North is a near certainty I’ll have no regrets.

      • Justin St.Denis

        I did the northern posting thing for career reasons. I mean, I was in one of the farthest north locations in Canada, listening for radio signals, monitoring geo seismic readings, absolutely the most boring jobs in one of the most boring places in the world. There were six other guys there. That was it. Everybody played an instrument, and to this day I can’t bear it when people pull out a guitar at parties and start to strum. 😉

        • canminuteman

          Were you comms research tech in Alert?

          • Justin St.Denis

            No, but I was there on occasion, as well as Resolute Bay. I was with the Canadian military at the time. I suppose it beat getting shot at.

        • dance…dancetotheradio

          If I get to where I want to go we’ll have the internet.
          I can take a lot if I’ve got access to a good all day breakfast and beer.
          On that guitar thing, I wanted to design a self tuning guitar for final project in school.
          The internet is really humbling.
          It’s already been done.

          • Justin St.Denis

            I share your sentiments. I have met and become friends with a number of brilliant people I only learned about because of the Internet. Brilliance often goes unrecognized in a corrupted meritocracy.

  • Dana Garcia

    It’s been reported that a lot more legal work is done by machine these days. The phrase “structural change in the legal profession” here may hint at that. It’s a very tough time for young people to have to choose a profession.


    • Justin St.Denis

      There have been too many lawyers for quite some time now. Decades, in fact.

      • dance…dancetotheradio

        There have always been a lot of lawyer shows on TV.
        Doctor shows.
        Not a lot of engineer shows.
        And the funny thing is that engineering is inherently more amusing and dramatic.
        But, that’s just my opinion.

        • Justin St.Denis

          I hear you. Architects also make great programming fodder. Look at the success of the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. I think it would be very revealing to have a show based around “urban planning/planners”, for example. Interesting professions provide interesting insights.

  • Norman_In_New_York

    Much of this depends on what branch of the law a graduate intends to specialize in. One of my nieces is married to a young lawyer who specializes in contracts and collections and has built up his clientele through referrals. He had been with a few small firms before setting out on his own and is now doing well for himself.

  • DD_Austin

    Suck it up, legal buttercups

    It’s the same in every profession, graduating isn’t the test of success in a

    career, it’s the beginning of the real test, Graduating just means you may get a
    chance to show that your good, or that you suck. And most of you will suck.

    You haven’t earned anything by getting a piece of paper that you brought for
    50,000 except perhaps a bad credit rating. And that’s something they’re never
    tell you while your a paying customer/student/chump

  • G

    “Burdened With Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle in Job Market”

    Wow, all those wanna be slime sucker ambulance chasers are hurting. My day is brightened.

    Don’t worry guys. You can get work laying scumbag ambush lawsuits against Christians on behalf of selfish gays.

  • john s

    Well I could move to Manhattan and be unemployed or underemployed too…..

    • Justin St.Denis

      Great observation.