Legal Profession Equity Journey Challenged by Employment Disparities

By James Leipold

In this year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions, declaring that race cannot be a factor and forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies, the legal profession has been on red alert, with both law schools and legal employers working to preserve recent progress on diversifying the profession and moving closer to real equity. Legal employment outcomes are one important marker that we can look to in order to measure that progress.

On the one hand, the job market for law school graduates has always been remarkably resilient. In times of economic uncertainty and during times of economic downturn, law school graduates have always done remarkably well in the job market. That is still true today despite the economic uncertainties that surround us. And on the other hand, there have also always been disparities in the employment outcomes of law school graduates, with different groups of new lawyers faring unevenly in the job market. Many of those gaps have closed over time, but others have not.

Recent research from NALP well illustrates both these important points. In September NALP reported that “the Class of 2022 attained the best employment rate in 35 years opens in new window [with] a record share of graduates working in bar passage required jobs, among other high-water marks.” The Class of 2022 also achieved new record high median salaries. But as NALP reported just a few days ago, despite a record job market for the class of 2022 law graduates, employment outcomes remain unequal opens in new window for graduates of color and first-generation law grads. Minoritization and the level of parental education continue to have profound effects on employment and salary outcomes after law school graduation.

The legal profession has made great strides in improving equity and inclusion. For instance, each of the last two entering law school classes have set benchmarks for being the most diverse entering class in law school history. And while we don’t have final data on the entering class of 2023 yet, we are happy to report the applicant pool for this year saw another significant increase in racial and ethnic diversity — the proportion of applicants who identify as people of color increased by 1.4 percentage points, from 45.5% in the 2022 applicant cycle to 46.9% in the just-completed 2023 applicant cycle.

Similarly, the 2022 summer associate class in U.S. law firms was also the most diverse class in history. But the profession has not yet completed its evolution, as this new data from NALP on unequal job outcomes underscores.  LSAC’s mission is to advance law and justice by encouraging diverse, talented individuals to study law and by supporting their enrollment and learning journeys from prelaw through practice. The entire pipeline from prelaw to practice needs constant attention and work to maintain the advancements that have been made on the diversity front, particularly now with litigants challenging diversity programs throughout the country, but it is in the employment arena that the most work remains to be done.

As Nikia Gray, NALP’s executive director said this week, “Despite the recent backlash against such initiatives, the fact that year after year Black, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islander graduates fare significantly worse in the job market compared to their peers demonstrates the need to continue working towards a more equitable and inclusive legal industry.”

Among the employment disparities based on race and ethnicity highlighted by NALP, the following stand out:

  • White graduates had the highest employment rate, while Native American and Alaska Native graduates had the lowest employment rate, followed by Black graduates.
  • White graduates also had the highest level of employment in bar admission required jobs, while the rate was more than 12 percentage points lower for Black graduates, 18 points lower for Native American and Native Alaska graduates, and nearly 22 percentage points lower for Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander graduates.
  • Employment rates within private practice are also lower for Native American and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and Black graduates. Private practice employment is highest for Asian graduates.
  • Latinx graduates are the least well represented in judicial clerkships.

Similar disparities exist based on level of parental education, as NALP reports:

  • The overall employment rate and the rate of employment in bar admission required jobs were both significantly greater for continuing-generation JD students (those who have at least one parent with a JD degree) compared to first-generation college students (those for whom neither parent completed a bachelor’s degree).
  • Continuing-generation JD students were also significantly more likely to secure jobs in private practice and judicial clerkships compared to first-generation college students.

At a time when diversity initiatives are taking fire on multiple fronts, it is more important than ever that law schools and legal employers of all sorts reach deep to find courage and bravery in fighting for the equity values and outcomes that have so transformed the profession in the last ten years. These latest employment figures from NALP remind us all that we cannot take the foot off the gas pedal even briefly. While great progress has been made, great inequities still exist, and the risk of backsliding is great without constant vigilance. The Law School Admission Council stands ready to help and support its member law schools and prospective law students in their equity journeys.

James Leipold

Senior Advisor, LSAC

James Leipold is a senior advisor with the Law School Admission Council. Prior to joining LSAC, he worked as the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C., for more than 18 years.