Careers After Law School

Q: Is there life after law school?

A: Well, yes, since it probably won’t kill you. Most students who attend law schools do graduate. Most pass the state bar examination, though it may mean taking it more than once. Most do practice law, some go into business, some teach, some go into public service as politicians or social service workers, some work in public law, some work in government. Some never again look at the law from a professional standpoint. The opportunities are virtually unlimited.

Keep in mind that the statistical information that follows will be outdated by the time you finish law school.

Q: Will I be able to practice law?

Studies have shown that many students on entering law school say they want to work in some sort of public law area when they graduate. The reality is that in their senior year, these same students will apply for jobs in law firms, hoping to draw starting associate salaries that historically have ranged from up to $125,000 in the Baltimore area to more than $150,000 in New York. These have been starting salaries for first-year associates in big-name law firms, which often require a guarantee of 2,200 billable hours per year, which is more than 42 hours per week. Billable hours refer to the time you spend actively working on a case, not just the number of hours you’re in the office. Individual firms may be lower or higher. Burnout is quite high at this rate. At the smaller or even medium-size firms in the Baltimore area, the starting salary runs around $75,000 per year, typically with a $10,000 bonus for those who can produce 1,750 (33+ per week) billable hours per year.

Local mid-size firms in the past have appointed anywhere from five to 10 new lawyers a year at the associate level. Although the larger firms may appoint up to 20 associates, there is no guarantee they will continue to do so. Moreover, statistics show that only 15 percent of all the lawyers in the United States work in large firms, usually defined as a firm with more than 100 lawyers, depending on location.

Most lawyers actually work for small firms with between two and 10 attorneys. The salary and draw-from-profits structure in those firms are not equivalent to those in larger firms. Moreover, not all associates become partners. The national average is about 50 percent. In the large firms, it’s closer to 25 percent.

Making partner has its advantages, the single most important being the right to share in the firm’s profits. Many law firms are following a trend to hold down the number of partners. They may have added a new level between associate and partner, called “permanent associate” or “non-equity partner.” These lawyers are never taken in as profit-sharing partners, nor are they dismissed. They work for a salary, just like new associates, but it’s for their entire career.

Most law firms are looking to recruit students in the top 10 to 15 percent of their class. The bottom 85 percent has to struggle. Baltimore law firms are more likely to recruit from the two local law schools than from Harvard or Yale, and it is far more impressive to be in the top 10 percent of the University of Baltimore law school class than in the bottom 10 percent at Harvard or Yale.

Q: What does the job market look like?

A: As of 31,354 law school graduates in 2016, 53 percent entered into some form of the private practice of law.  Another 10.5 percent became judicial clerks at the state or federal level, while the remainder fell into the following categories:  15.6 percent in business, 11 percent in government, 6.9 percent in public interest, 1.9 percent in education, and 1.1 percent in the military.  The overall median stating salary was $65,000 per year for those in private practice, whereas for those in government, the overall median was $59,000. 

Make good use of the career placement office of your law school. This office will advise you about which law firms are hiring, what alternatives there are to practicing law, and other issues. Meantime, Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers by Gary A. Munneke and William D. Henslee, or Turning Points: New Paths and Second Careers for Lawyers by George H. Cain are excellent print resources. As part of the American Bar Association Career Resources, they may be ordered from the American Bar Association. This will give you a step up on career issues for a later time.  Students should also consult the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), https://www.nalp.org/home, for information about hiring trends in the legal profession.