THREE EMBARRASSING DATA POINTS

Three recently released numbers tell an unhappy tale of what ails the legal profession in particular and society in general. Specifically, those data points reveal profound intergenerational antagonisms that are getting worse.

Dismal job prospects persist

First, the ABA reports that only 56 percent of law school graduates in the class of 2012 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree. The good news is that this result is no worse than last year’s. The bad news is the number of 2012 law graduates reached an all-time record high — more than 46,000. The even worse news is that the graduating class of 2013 is expected to be even bigger.

Sure, the number of students taking the LSAT has trended downward. So has the number of law school applicants. But students seeking to attend law school still outnumber the available places. Meanwhile, the number of attorneys working in big law firms has not yet returned to pre-recession levels of 2007. If, as many hope, the market for attorneys is moving toward an equilibrium between supply and demand, it has a long way to go.

Law school for all the wrong reasons

A second data point is even more distressing. According to a survey that test-prep company Kaplan Inc. conducted, 43 percent of pre-law students plan to use their degrees to find jobs in the business world, rather than in the legal industry. Even more poignantly, 42 percent said they would attend business school instead of law school, were they not already “set to go to law school.”

I don’t know what “set to go” means to these individuals, but if they want to go into business, first spending more than $100,000 and three years of their lives on a legal degree makes no sense. That’s especially true in light of another survey result: Only 5 percent said they were pursuing a career primarily for the money; 71 percent said they were “motivated by pursuing a career they are passionate about.”

Maybe these conflicted pre-law students are confused by the chorus of law school deans now writing regularly that a legal degree is a valuable vehicle to other pursuits. Let’s hope not. Many deans are simply trying to drum up student demand for their schools in the face of declining applicant pools.

Follow the money

The third data point relates to the money that fuels this dysfunctional system: federal loan dollars that are disconnected from law school accountability for student outcomes. Recently, the New York Times reported that on July 1, many student loan rates were set to double — from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

Young law school graduates are among the unenviable one-percenters in this group because 85 percent of them hold, on average, more than $100,000 in debt (compared to the overall average of $27,000 for all students). Like all other educational loans, those debts survive a bankruptcy filing.

In the current economic environment, an investor would search in vain for a guaranteed 6.8 percent return and virtually no risk. According to one estimate cited in the Times article, the federal government makes 36 cents on every student loan dollar it puts out.

Kids as profit centers

Ironically, those who favor raising the current 3.4 percent interest rate on many federal student loans to 6.8 percent are the same people who express concerns that growing federal deficits will saddle the next generation. The reality is that we already treat that generation as a profit center. For too many people, there’s money to be made in sustaining the lawyer bubble.

Until it bursts.

BAD NUMBERS REVEALING WORSE TRENDS

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.

Digging deeper

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.

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 Lawyerthe 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.

Perilous short-termism

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.