Law student with career advisor

The Stakes Just Got Higher for Law School Career Services Offices

By James Leipold

The banner headlines in April about the record employment numbers for members of the law school graduating class of 2023 risk creating a false sense of confidence about the job market for law school graduates. The record-setting employment figures External link opens in new browser window showed that 85.6% of the 2023 graduates of ABA-approved law schools were employed in full-time, long-term, Bar passage required or JD Advantage jobs. This is the highest figure measured in over a decade and is indeed cause for celebration. 

But we already know that the members of the classes of 2024 and 2025 are likely to face headwinds not faced by their immediate predecessors. In March, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported a “drop in demand for new law talent at law firmsExternal link opens in new browser window” that resulted in the softest recruiting cycle since the Great Recession. Notably, NALP reported that, as a result of dropping utilization rates, “firms across the industry are projecting excess capacity in the near term…[and] less need for new talent.” According to the NALP data, the offer rate coming out of last year’s 2L summer programs (for members of the graduating class of 2024) dropped from 97% in 2022 to 96% in 2023, the lowest offer rate since 2017. The NALP recruiting report also noted that summer 2024 programs for members of the graduating class of 2025, only “46% of callback interviews resulted in offers for summer 2024 positions, a decline of six percentage points from 2022, and the lowest offer rate since 2012.” In addition, the “total offer volume for summer 2024 programs was down 19% as compared to recruiting that took place in 2022 for summer 2023 programs.”

On top of that, we have long known that most law schools brought in larger 1L classes in the fall of 2021 External link opens in new browser window, the class that will be graduating this May. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), 41,700 first-year students enrolled in law school in 2021, making it the largest incoming class in almost a decade External link opens in new browser window, with more than 4,500 additional students than the classes that immediately preceded it.

So, more students will be competing for fewer jobs following law school graduation this spring. During the many years that I have studied and written about the legal employment market for law school graduates, I have been accused of being the bad news guy, or even the prophet of doom. I prefer to see myself as a realist, relying on the available data and telling it like it is. The legal job market (not unlike the law school admissions market, which is closely related) tells a story of sharp peaks and valleys over time, following the boom-and-bust cycle of the free market as periods of expansion are naturally followed by periods of contraction. I can say with some certainty that the record employment figures for the class of 2023 will come to represent the peak of one such cycle, with subsequent classes notching somewhat lower overall employment rates for the next several years.

This comes at a time when U.S. News & World Report rankings are giving more weight to bar passage rates and employment outcomes than they have in the past. Employment outcomes at 10 months are now weighted by 33%, double their weighting from previous years. That change was first implemented last year. This year, U.S. News introduced a further change, averaging the bar passage rates and employment rates over two years, making it harder for a law school to raise its rankings quickly even with dramatically improved employment or bar passage outcomes.

And finally, we know from new research released just this week from Major, Lindsey & Africa and from Leopard Solutions that 45% of junior law firm associates External link opens in new browser window surveyed in January and February said law school did not sufficiently prepare them for their current role. The report, Beyond Tradition: Gen-Z’s Approach to BigLaw, also notes that 31% of these same junior associates reported that their law firm experience didn’t meet their expectations coming out of law school.

None of these challenges are new to law school career development professionals. It was energizing to speak with so many law school career and employment professionals at the NALP annual education conference in Boston in April, all of whom were actively engaged in learning about new and innovative ways to provide career and professional identity formation education and support to this generation of law students.

It has long been a privilege for me to work with such a committed group of education leaders dedicated to helping each of their students find their own professional pathways. There seemed to be a consensus among those gathered at the Hynes Convention Center that this was not a time for business as usual and that challenging times call, inevitably, for creative ways to solve both old and emerging problems for the law students that attend their schools. Chatter at the conference was also dominated by ongoing conversations around the staffing challenges facing many law school career centers as hiring in this environment remains challenging in most markets.

The Legal Education Consulting team at LSAC stands ready to help law schools solve problems of all sorts, including by providing interim leadership staffing during tough searches and also by making available our team of experts to help think through innovation and solution building for challenges of all kinds — challenges with career development and placement, challenges with admissions and enrollment management, and challenges with academic support and bar preparation. Visit LSAC’s Legal Education Consulting webpage to learn more about how our team can individually tailor services and solutions designed to address your school’s unique needs and help your school achieve its institutional goals.

And to end with a bit of good news: the National Conference of Bar Examiners is reporting that bar exam pass rates are finally rebounding after a marked COVID-era slump. According to a recent Reuters article by Karen Sloan External link opens in new browser window, “Among the 42 jurisdictions that have reported February results thus far, 31 have a higher overall pass rate than in February of 2023 according to data, compiled by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. That includes all 10 of the largest bar exam jurisdictions that have released results.” This is excellent news for graduates’ employment prospects. See? I can be the glass-half-full guy too. I look forward to catching up with many of you at the LSAC Annual Meeting in Scottsdale later this month.

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.