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Incoming 1Ls / something to consider before it's too late...
« on: July 10, 2007, 01:10:14 PM »
Not-So-Fast-Money: Wannabes Better Not Count on $160,000

New York Lawyer

July 10, 2007

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By Leigh Jones

The National Law Journal

Despite news of record-breaking employment figures for law school graduates and first-year salaries of $160,000 at many top law firms, a significant contingent of job seekers — including those with strong credentials — are living a much different story after graduation.

By accounts from employment trackers, news reports and some law schools themselves, starting a lucrative career as a lawyer these days is easier than ever. Many big law firms are doling out first-year salaries that exceed those paid to seasoned federal judges, and they are bestowing year-end bonuses that rival starting pay for many entry-level professional positions.

But the eye-popping salaries are the reality for a small fraction of law school graduates, and all those stories of big money may be creating unrealistic hopes for the vast majority of law school students. Contributing to the situation is the effort by law schools to portray their employment numbers as robustly as possible to boost their ranking scores.

The upshot means dashed expectations for lots of graduates, many of whom are saddled with high debt as they struggle to start their careers.

"They do not have an accurate perception of the job market," said Emily Spieler, dean of Northeastern University School of Law. "They have very restricted views."

A big challenge — and responsibility — for law schools is to dispel the notion that six-figure salaries at megafirms are the norm, she said. "They perceive those jobs as having high status and high pay and do not understand what they entail."

According to the latest information from NALP, the Washington-based nonprofit group that tracks legal employment, 90.7% of last year's law school graduates were employed nine months after graduation, topping 90% for the first time since 2000. The total number of graduates for whom employment status was known equaled 40,186.

From that number 55.8% — or 22,424 — took jobs in private practice. NALP estimates that about 37% of graduates who go into private practice end up working for firms with 101 attorneys or more. Importantly, the vast majority of the firms paying first-year associates the much-publicized $160,000 have more than 500 attorneys.

The result is that about 80% of law graduates are not working in law firms with more than 101 attorneys, and, consequently, are making far less than the amounts grabbing all the attention.

"I'm kind of stuck," said a 27-year-old lawyer from Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law who moved to Chicago after she graduated last year. She did not want to reveal her identity out of a concern that doing so would hinder her job search.

Currently working for an in-house department at a large insurance company in Chicago, she graduated in the top third of her class, was a member of law review and participated in the school's moot court competition. She has $70,000 in student loan debt, she said, and makes about $50,000 annually.

She sent out more than 100 résumés and letters before and after she graduated, she said. "I could get in the door; I just couldn't land the job."

She said that many of her friends from law school are working on a contract basis for law firms.

"A lot of people are making $30,000."

She is looking for another job and is considering nonlawyer positions.

"I'm not going anywhere," she said.

While the challenges of landing that first job as a lawyer may not be any more difficult for law graduates than for graduates in other fields, the attention paid to the top lawyer jobs by the media, the law firms and the schools themselves can build false hopes about job prospects.

"I absolutely think their expectations are inflated," said James Leipold, executive director of NALP. Part of the problem lies in the interpretation of the numbers, Leipold explained. As of August 2006, the most recent data available from NALP, the median salary for first-year associates at law firms with 501 attorneys or more was $135,000. Since then, many big law firms have raised their starting pay to $160,000. For firms with two to 25 attorneys, the median salary was $67,000, according to NALP's latest information.

But job hunters should view those figures with caution, Leipold said. First, the majority of law school graduates obtain jobs at firms with 10 attorneys or fewer, he said. In addition, location makes a big difference in salaries. Most law school graduates across the country who take jobs in private practice can expect to make between $40,000 and $45,000 their first year, Leipold said.

According to NALP, 75.3% of graduates in 2006 had jobs for which passing the bar exam was required nine months after graduation. Leipold said he is confident that NALP's numbers are accurate.

"I have no reason to doubt our numbers," he said. "The data has been so consistent over 30 years. The market moves in decimal points."

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