Careers in Law
Law school graduates pursue careers in a variety of sectors, including private practice, medium-sized specialty firms, government service, and consultation. Currently, about 73% of all American lawyers are in private practice. Most of those in private practice work in small firms (law firms range in size from solo practice to 500+ lawyers). Approximately 10% of lawyers work in private industry, and some 8% work for government agencies, which often have large legal staffs. Approximately 1% of lawyers work as public defenders or in legal aid and 1% are legal educators. Not all law school graduates decide to practice law. Some work in the business world or report on legal affairs, and some work in educational administration or politics.
Recent Trends in Post-Graduation Employment Prospects
The legal field has been effected by the economic downturn and faces a supply/demand imbalance. In 2011, law schools reported to NALP -The Association for Legal Career Professionals that 85.6% of graduates with known employment status found employment, the lowest rate since 1994, continuing a decline that started in 2008. However, that statistic includes non-legal jobs, internships, post-graduation temporary employment at law schools, part-time jobs and jobs that do not require a JD. Of those graduates for whom employment was known, only 65.4% obtained a job for which bar passage is required. This figure is the lowest percentage NALP has ever measured.
According to the same study, 49.5% were employed in private practice, and 18.1% were employed in business. 28.8% of 2011 graduates were employed in public service jobs, including military and other government jobs, judicial clerkships, and public interest positions. Public interest organizations, including public defenders, accounted for 7.5% of jobs.
Recent trends in post-graduate employment:
- The overall employment rate for the class of 2007 was 91.9%, a 23-year high. Four years later, for the Class of 2011, it stands at just 85.6%, a dramatic drop of 6.3 percentage points. Nine months after graduation, 12.1% of the 2011 graduates neither had jobs nor were they reported to be pursuing additional study
- Of those employed, the number of graduates in private practice, long the destination of a majority of U.S. law graduates, fell below 50% for the first time since 1975. Only 49.5% of the jobs taken by this class were reported to be in private practice. One of the lasting legacies of the recession has been the erosion of private practice legal opportunities, mostly at the very largest law firms — those plum jobs that pay the highest salaries and represent for many the ultimate prize.
- Those securing first jobs for which bar passage is required, our best proxy for measuring jobs that are actually practicing law, made up 76.9% of the Class of 2007 and only 65.4% of the Class of 2011, an astonishing drop of 11.5 percentage points.
Where do law graduates find their first positions? In the NALP data from 2009, the survey showed that 55.9% of those in law school graduating classes of 2009 were in private practice. 25.8% of the graduates were in public service, with 11.4% in government service, 8.7% in judicial clerkships, and 5.7% in the public interest area. Judicial clerkships are prestigious positions, especially at the Supreme Court and federal appellate court level. Federal district court judges and state court judges may also have clerks. 13.5% of graduates were in business and industry positions, with many of those lawyers working for private industries and associations such as banks and corporations as salaried lawyers or managers.
The majority of lawyers engage in general practice, meaning that they handle problems ranging from divorce and wills to car accidents. Some lawyers have specialty areas, which include immigration, civil rights, environmental and natural resources law, commercial law, corporate law, criminal law, employment discrimination, family law, labor, patents, personal injury, real estate, securities and taxation. You don’t need to know which area you would like to specialize in when you begin law school. To explore these specialty areas, begin by reading the LSAC website, and then make sure to look at the Vault careers guides, available in the Piper Center, for more information (for a complete list of law resources available in the Piper Center click here. You should also conduct informational interviews and job shadow lawyers in the specialty areas you are interested in.