By now, everyone interested in the job prospects for new lawyers has seen two recent headline items:
— Nine months after graduation, only 55 percent of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree, and
— The median starting salary for all employed attorneys in the class of 2011 has dropped to $60,000 — from $72,000 only two years earlier.
The New York City Bar Association just formed a task force to wring its hands over the lawyer oversupply crisis — as if it were something new. A closer analysis of the salary data reveals several underlying realities that are even worse than that declining number suggests.
For example, NALP’s press release about the median salary number came with this concluding sentence: “Salary information was reported for 65% of graduates reported to be working full-time in a position lasting at least one year.” If that means 35 percent of such workers with full-time jobs didn’t report their salary information, then the published median probably overstates the actual number — perhaps by a lot.
A more detailed breakdown reveals that for the class of 2011, the $40,000 to $65,000 category accounted for 52 percent of all reported salaries. Compare that to the class of 2009: Two years ago, starting salaries of between $40,000 and $65,000 accounted for 42 percent of reported salaries. Today, more new lawyers are working for less money, but they’re still the lucky ones — law graduates who got full-time jobs.
The trend in law firm starting salaries is more dramatic: The median starting salary for law firms of all sizes dropped from $130,000 in 2009 to $85,000 in 2011.
Whither big law?
Two more bits of information offer some insight into what’s happening in the biggest law firms:
— Only eight percent of 2011 graduates landed jobs in big firms of more than 250 attorneys.
— Entry level jobs that paid $160,000 a year accounted for only 16 percent of reported salaries in 2011. Even for the class of 2009 — graduating into the teeth of the Great Recession and widespread big firm layoffs — the $160,000 category accounted for 25 percent of reported salaries. And the 2009 denominator was bigger: 19,513 reported salaries v. 18,630 salaries in 2011. Importantly, the decline hasn’t resulted because big law firms have reduced their starting salaries; most haven’t.
Rather, as NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold explains, “[T]he downward shift in salaries is not, for the most part, the result of individual legal employers paying new graduates less than they paid them in the past. Although some firms have lowered their starting salaries, and we are starting to see a measurable impact from lower-paying non-partnership track lawyer jobs at large law firms, aggregate starting salaries have fallen over the last two years because graduates found fewer jobs with the highest-paying large law firms and many more jobs with lower-paying small law firms.”
Big law firms’ self-inflicted wounds
Surely, things are better than they were during the cataclysmic days of early 2009; equity partner profits have returned to pre-2008 peaks. So what’s happening? One answer is that large firms are increasing the ranks of non-equity partners. According to The American Lawyer, the number of non-equity partners grew by almost six percent in 2011. They now comprise fifteen percent of all attorneys in Am Law 100 firms.
As The American Lawyer’s editor in chief Robin Sparkman explains, “Some firms deequitized partners and pushed them into this holding pen. Other firms expanded the practice of moving potential equity partners (either homegrown or laterals) into this category — both to keep their PPP high and to give the lawyers a little breathing room before they face the rainmaking pressures of equity partnership.” I’d add one more category: some firms have increased the ranks of permanent non-equity partners.
Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna have described how non-equity partners are profit centers. Keeping them around longer makes more money for equity partners, but creating that non-equity partner bubble comes at significant institutional costs. One is blockage.
For any firm, there’s only so much work to go around. Ultimately, the burgeoning ranks of non-equity partners has an adverse trickle down impact on those seeking to enter the big firm pipeline. Whether new graduates should have that aspiration is a different question, but the larger implications for the affected firms are clear: There’s less room for today’s brightest young law graduates.
Some leaders have decided that maximizing current equity partner profits is more important than securing, training and developing a future generation of talent for their law firms. Sooner than they realize, their firms will suffer the tragic consequences of that mistake.
One thing I wonder about the bi-modal associate salary effect in the NALP numbers from 1991 to 2011 is that this also correlates to the change over the same time of law firms going from being essentially mid-sized regional entities, where the best law firms in a given state tended to compete primarily with other firms in their state and they could be fairly nimble in making changes, to being large national or international entities less able to adjust to new economic realities in particular markets. Of course, their main clients, the commercial banks, did the same thing over the same time, and see how that has turned out. Not that we can go back.