I won't even try to be cute about this one: The latest stats from NALP (The Association for Legal Career Professionals) about the earning power of 2011 law grads are abysmal. If you're in law school, you should be alarmed. And if are thinking of going to law school, you should think twice.
The bottom line is that salaries for the class of 2011 dropped virtually across the board—but the decrease in the law firm sector is almost jaw-dropping.
First the general picture: NALP reports that the overall median starting salary for 2011 grads fell 5 percent from 2010, and nearly 17 percent just since 2009. We know the market has been shrinking, so no one should be shocked by these drops.
Now for the jolt: "The research also reveals that the median starting private practice salary fell over 18 percent from 2010 and since 2009 has fallen an astonishing 35 percent."
Let me say that louder: a 35 percent drop! What accounts for this precipitous decline? "Nearly all of the drop can be attributed to the continued erosion of private practice opportunities at the largest law firms," says NALP executive director James Leipold in the report.
In other words, far fewer grads are getting big-firm jobs with fat salaries. In fact, getting a Big Law job has become a long shot. Here's the new reality for the class of 2011:
1. Nearly 60 percent of law firm jobs were in firms of 50 or fewer lawyers.
2. Only 21 percent of grads got jobs in firms with more than 250 lawyers (two years ago, it was 33 percent).
3. The median law firm salary based on reported salaries was $85,000, compared with $104,000 the year before.
The NALP report also suggests the continuing growth of a subclass at big law firms:
Though still a tiny minority, salaries of less than $100,000 at large firms are more common than just a year ago, as more graduates are taking staff attorney or similar positions at lower salaries.
And the report highlights plenty of other indicators of a weakened legal market. Among them:
—Almost 12 percent of jobs overall were in the part-time sector, which were "especially prevalent in academic and public interest settings."
—Twice as many grads are going solo than in 2007 and 2008: "For 2011, 3 percent of all jobs, and 6 perccent of law firm jobs, were reported as solo practice."
—The number of grads working for a legal temp agency "ticked up dramatically in 2011, and is at its highest level since NALP began tracking this kind of job in 2006. About 2 percent of employed graduates were reported as working for a legal temp agency."
Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that only 2 percent are working for a legal temp agency. My suspicion is that some grads aren't even fortunate enough to get a job through that route.
Leipold remarked that "these statistics paint a pretty dismal picture." He added:
It is startling to see that only 49.5 percent of employed graduates from the class found jobs in private practice and less than 57 percent of graduates for whom employment status was known were employed in a full-time job requiring bar passage that will last for more than one year.
Dismal indeed. I hope you aspiring law students are listening—and seriously weighing other career options.