Last week we explored how satisfied recent law school graduates are with their jobs (they generally are). This week, we are covering where they are working.
The demand for legal services after the COVID-19 shutdowns led to a hiring boom for Class of 2021 and Class of 2022 law school graduates. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports a 92.1% employment rate for the Class of 2022, just higher than its year-earlier counterpart and the highest overall employment rate in 35 years.
There has also been a shift in where graduates are working, with more opting for BigLaw and public interest jobs than smaller firms and solo practices.
What’s driving this?
“This year’s data demonstrates that the vigorous market recovery combined with the so-called ‘talent wars’ propelled the Class of 2022 beyond even the impressive employment outcomes of the Class of 2021, in several cases shattering employment and salary records altogether,” wrote NALP Executive Director Nikia L. Gray in the report.
The move to BigLaw
As noted, one notable change for the Class of 2022 is where they are working. Traditionally, the majority of law school graduates have started their careers in private practice employment at small law firms of 1-10 lawyers, according to NALP.
However, given the increased demand and hot legal hiring market over the past couple of years, employment has moved from small firms to BigLaw (501+ lawyers). Among the Class of 2022, 32.8% of graduates are employed at BigLaw firms and just 28.5% at firms of 1-10 lawyers.
This is the lowest rate of employment at small firms since 1989, according to NALP, and the first time the percentage of employed graduates who secured positions at the largest law firms exceeded those who secured positions at the smallest law firms.
Moreover, NALP says the percentage of graduates opening a solo practice hit a record low of 0.9% of all law firm jobs and 0.5% of all jobs in 2022.
Increased hiring in BigLaw and the need for firms to stay competitive have resulted in a rise in salaries. NALP reports the national median salary for all Class of 2022 law school graduates hit a record high of $85,000, up 6.3% from the previous year. For those working in private practice, the national median law firm salary climbed to $150,000, an increase of 14.1% from the Class of 2021.
Public interest jobs are growing
NALP also reported a continued interest in public-sector work, which has been growing over the past couple of years.
Employment in public interest jobs reached an all-time high for Class of 2022 law school graduates, in both the percentage of employment (9.2%) and total number of jobs (2,983).
While NALP could not deduce the reason that interest in the public sector is growing, it did say Gen Z’s noted desire for pursuing altruistic and meaningful careers could be a potential motivator.
To that end, a 2023 report from Major, Lindsey, & Africa found that 24% of Gen Z lawyers identified government or nonprofit work as their long-term career goal.
The market’s future outlook
Law grads from both the Class of 2021 and 2022 benefited from what industry observers and firm leaders told Law.com was a “war for bodies,” or firms looking to staff up to meet the demands of the post-pandemic recovery. This strong job market also led to more employers accommodating workplace preferences, like flexible work hours and remote options.
2023, however, has experienced a cooling of the legal market, with delayed start dates, associate layoffs, and more talent-driven hiring. In addition, a growing number of law firms are returning to firmer workplace policies, mandating more in-office days and threatening to withhold bonuses for those who don’t comply.
“Right now, the power is largely with the employers and this is the sort of market where it won’t hurt them, at least in the short-term, to institute policies like these,” Michelle Fivel, a partner at the legal recruiting firm Hatch Henderson Fivel, told Reuters.
With the cooling of the market, NALP said it expects to see private practice employment “realign with historic trends,” with fewer graduates going to the biggest firms in the coming years. However, NALP does anticipate that BigLaw employment will remain above pre-Recession levels, given the increasing number of BigLaw firms generated by mergers and acquisitions.
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