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November 17, 2012

Law school grads find supply exceeds demand for new lawyers

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In 2011, more than 44,000 students graduated from the 200-odd U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Nine months after graduation, only a bit more than half had found full-time jobs as lawyers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020. But just three years into that decade, about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the job market.

While not every new JD seeks employment as a lawyer, it is safe to say that planning to work as an attorney is not rare among law students. But perhaps it should be. Data from the National Association of Legal Career Professionals indicate that since 2010, about 75,000 new law grads have found full-time jobs as lawyers.

So, in theory, all of the BLS-forecasted job openings through 2020 have already been filled, and 59,157 new lawyers are still looking for "real" law jobs.

Yes, of course some of the JD graduates this year and in the years to come will find high-paying, partner-track jobs at big firms and elsewhere. But the scale of the imbalance over a decade gives some indication of just how tough it is — and will be — as armies of newly minted JDs rise every year. By 2020, about 300,000 additional grads will join those 59,157 in a hunt for jobs that, statistically, are not to be found.

Though law-school enrollments have dipped slightly, these institutions have tenured faculty to pay and often luxe facilities to maintain.

Law students can borrow today — often with federally guaranteed loans — the full cost of tuition and expenses, and worry later about repaying what could total $237,000 for a UC-Irvine-level education.

For years, the return on investment made sense, as a law degree from a respected but not stellar school seemed to promise a long, fairly lucrative career, with more modest loans paid off in a 10-year span. But things changed as tuitions rose sharply and employment and compensation lagged. Federal tuition-repayment plans adjusted for low-earning lawyers now stretch to 25 years. If the loan is not paid off at the 25-year mark, the balance is forgiven, and the taxpayers eat the loss.

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