What's New About the New Normal: The Evolving Market for New Lawyers in the 21st Century

68 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2013 Last revised: 2 Jul 2014

Date Written: August 13, 2013


Everyone agrees that job prospects for many new law graduates have been poor for the last several years; there is rather less consensus on whether, when, how, or why that may change as the economy recovers from the Great Recession. This Article analyzes historical and current trends in the job market for new lawyers in an effort to predict how that market may evolve.

The Article derives quantitative measurements of the proportion of law graduates over the last thirty years who have obtained initial employment for which law school serves as rational substantive preparation (“Law Jobs”). In comparing entry-level hiring patterns since 2008 with those in earlier periods, a significant development emerges: While other sectors of the market for new lawyers have changed only modestly during the Great Recession, one sector — the larger private law firms colloquially known as “BigLaw” — has contracted proportionally six times as much as all the others. Entering BigLaw classes overall are now roughly one-third smaller than they were seven years ago. And though BigLaw hiring has historically accounted for only 10% to 20% of each graduating class, it is responsible for over half the entry-level Law Jobs lost since 2008.

While some observers predict a return to business as usual as the economy recovers, this Article is skeptical of that account. The Article identifies significant structural changes in the way that the services BigLaw has traditionally provided are being produced, staffed, and priced that diminish BigLaw’s need for junior lawyers, both immediately and in the longer term. These observations suggest that entry-level BigLaw hiring, and thus the market for new lawyers overall, will remain depressed below pre-recession levels well after demand improves to or beyond pre-recession levels. At the same time, even though entry-level demand may remain static, new lawyers’ job prospects may nevertheless improve as the con-traction in the legal academy now underway reduces the number of new graduates competing for work.

Keywords: legal profession, legal education, empirical

JEL Classification: D12, D21, D23, D33, D40, D50, I21, I22, J21, J23, J44, L84, M21, M51

Suggested Citation

Burk, Bernard A., What's New About the New Normal: The Evolving Market for New Lawyers in the 21st Century (August 13, 2013). UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2309497; 41 Florida St. L. Rev 541 (2014), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2309497 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2309497

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