Only 64% of law grads land jobs requiring bar passage, even as BigLaw jobs rise 27% in two years

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There is good news and bad news in employment figures for the class of 2012 released today by NALP, the National Association for Law Placement.

On the negative side, the overall employment rate for new law grads fell to 84.7 percent, a drop of almost a full percentage point from the prior year. It’s the fifth straight year in which the employment rate has fallen, according to a press release. In raw numbers, the number of jobs increased, but so did the size of the class of 2012.

The recent high-water mark for employment of new grads was 91.9 percent in 2007.

Another big negative: Only 64.4 percent of the law grads were able to land a job requiring bar passage, the lowest percentage ever measured by NALP. The percentage is based on graduates for whom employment status is known. The figure has dropped 10 percentage points since 2008.

On the plus side, BigLaw jobs are rebounding. The number of jobs for law grads in firms of more than 500 lawyers has jumped 27 percent from 2011 levels. (The total number of jobs for grads—more than 3,600—is still below the 2009 figure of more than 5,100 jobs.)

The increase in BigLaw jobs has also pushed higher the national median salary for all full-time jobs lasting at least a year. The new median salary is $61,245, compared with $60,000 for the class of 2011, according to reported salary information. (NALP was able to collect salary information for only 65 percent of these jobs.) The national average salary for the class of 2012 is $80,798, compared with $78,653 for the class of 2011.

The national median salary at law firms based on reported salaries is $90,000, compared with $85,000 the prior year. The prevailing salary at the largest firms is still $160,000, though the percentage paying that amount has dropped since 2010.

The percentage of grads who found jobs in private practice also rose slightly, from 49.5 percent for the class of 2011 to 50.7 for the class of 2012.

The NALP figures differ slightly from ABA figures released earlier this year partly because the ABA caculates its percentages for the entire class, including those for whom employment is not known.

The press release quotes NALP executive director James Leipold. “The employment picture remains decidedly mixed,” he said. “With the class of 2012 we see the beginning of a rebounding private practice sector, particularly at large law firms, and, with that, we see some rebounding salary numbers. However, we still see very high unemployment and underemployment, and there are no indications that the employment situation will return to anything like what it was before the recession.

“Adding to the complexity of the jobs picture this year the data show that law schools funded fewer jobs for this class than they did for the previous class, and that certainly contributed to the overall employment rate falling further. That an adjustment was made there is not unexpected. Some schools were funding jobs at a level that was economically unsustainable over the long haul. Looking ahead, I would expect to see the employment picture for the class of 2013 continue to improve, although that is another very large graduating class, and that will take a toll on the overall employment rate. As class sizes come down over time and the legal employment market stabilizes somewhat, I would expect to continue to see modest improvements in the job market in the near- and medium-term future.”

Updated at 10:22 a.m. to include Bloomberg Law video.

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