Midyear Meeting

24 percent of JDs who passed the bar in 2000 aren't practicing law, survey finds

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A third-wave survey of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000 has found a decline in the percentage of lawyers practicing law and major differences in pay based on gender, law school ranking and grades.

Twenty-four percent of the surveyed lawyers were not practicing law in 2012, compared to about 9 percent who weren’t practicing law in 2003, according to preliminary survey findings. The results are from the After the JD study, which tracked a national sample of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000 with surveys in three waves—in 2003, 2007 and 2012.

The 2012 results are considered preliminary because researchers are still determining whether weighting the results by region or other characteristics will change the findings. More than 3,000 people responded to the Wave 3 survey. The findings were presented at a research seminar sponsored by the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation at the ABA Midyear Meeting on Saturday. Four members of the AJD research team presented study findings.

“These are the golden age graduates,” said American Bar Foundation faculty fellow Ronit Dinovitzer after the presentation, “and even among the golden age graduates, 24 percent are not practicing law.”

The careers with the highest percentage of nonpracticing lawyers were the nonprofit and education sector, where about 75 percent weren’t practicing; and the federal government, where nearly 26 percent were nonpracticing. Nonpracticing careers ranged from law professors to real-estate agents to investment bankers, Dinovitzer said.

Women fared more poorly than men in terms of pay and law-firm advancement, according to the preliminary results. Women working full-time earned 80 percent of the pay reported by their male counterparts. The difference was most pronounced among law grads who were working in business and not practicing law; women working full-time in that sector earned only 67 percent of the pay of their male counterparts.

Similarly, the percentage of women respondents working in law firms in 2012 who were partners was 52.3 percent, compared to 68.8 percent for men. Fifty-three percent of the women partners were equity partners, compared to 65.5 percent for men.

There were also pay differences based on schools and grades. Graduates of the top 10 law schools who worked full-time earned median pay that was $73,500 more per year than graduates of Tier 4 schools. And among graduates of Tier 3 schools, grades made a big difference. In that group, those with the highest grade point averages had median pay that was $121,500 more than those with the lowest grades.

Other preliminary findings from the survey:

• The 2012 respondents were largely happy with their decision to attend law school. Asked to rate their satisfaction with their decision to become a lawyer on a 1-to-5 scale, the average was 3.92. Asked whether law school was a good investment on a 1-to-7 scale, the average was 5.5. Asked whether would go to law school if they had it to do over again using a 1-to-7 scale, the average was 4.91.

• The findings show a movement from private practice to business since the first wave of the study. The percentage of respondents working in the business sector was 27.7 percent in 2012, compared to only 8.4 percent in 2003. At the same time, the percentage of respondents in private practice was 44.1 percent in 2012, compared to 68.6 percent in 2003.

• The median remaining educational debt for the survey respondents in 2012 was $50,000, compared to $70,000 in 2003. Nearly 48 percent had no debt remaining in 2012, compared to only about 16 percent in 2003.

• Among graduates of the top 10 law schools, only 16.8 percent were working in large firms of more than 250 lawyers in 2012, compared to 55.3 percent in 2003 and 28.7 percent in 2007.

One audience member questioned whether the high percentage of nonpracticing lawyers suggests that the profession has reached a new normal. Panelist Daniel Rodriguez, the law dean of Northwestern University, said the study highlights the need for schools to break down the silos between law, business and other programs, to prepare students for careers outside of traditional law practice.

Entry-level jobs have declined since the survey, Rodriguez said, raising questions about the value of law schools for positions in which a law degree is merely preferred or not required at all. The value proposition may well depend on the level of educational debt, he said. He noted that the lawyers in the After the JD study likely had lower debt than grads that followed because of tuition hikes that accelerated from 1999 to 2006.

The survey is funded by the American Bar Foundation, the National Association for Law Placement Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Corrected on Feb. 10 to state that the National Association for Law Placement Foundation was one of the sponsors and on Feb. 14 to fix typos.

Related links:

After the JD: First Results of a National Study of Legal Careers (2004) (PDF)

After the JD II: Second Results from a National Study of Legal Careers (2009) (PDF)

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