Lawyers, [no] guns, and money.

In my grand plan for deconstructing career data, I mapped out a bunch of discrete questions to address seriatim in individual posts. But after last week’s post, a couple of commenters (as well as a couple of e-mailers too shy to post comments) asked essentially the same question: What kind of jobs? One e-mailer put the question this way: “What would be … interesting is to know how many of the employed at various schools are employed as bartenders. The metric that would matter (and that may not be realistically possible to report) is how many graduates are employed in quality legal jobs after graduation (e.g., either making the rightward node of the bimodal distribution or suing ExxonMobil over do-gooder stuff).” I wanted to quote that verbatim because I thought “rightward node of the bimodal distribution” sounded smart, and I’m hoping some glory will devolve to me. To be clear, the writer is an alum working at a big Chicago firm, doing corporate litigation—you can tell by his glib characterization of suing oil companies. (I haven’t yet gotten around to asking him about what he thinks about the whole kerfuffle this summer in the Gulf—doubtless he’ll say it was overblown.)

Anyway, fair enough. Rather than stubbornly stick with my predetermined roadmap, I will roll with this new-media, interwebs thing, and respond to the readers! Old dog, new tricks.

Our starting point is the 397 employed people described in the previous post. The vast majority—389, or 98%—were employed in full-time jobs where bar passage was required. Of the remaining 8 people, 3 were in full-time jobs where bar passage was preferred; 2 were in “other professional” full-time jobs; 2 were in “non-professional” full-time jobs; and 1 was in a full-time job for which we lacked enough information to be able to able to categorize.

That data addresses a concern I see frequently expressed: Are the jobs that law schools are reporting jobs as lawyers? Or are they paralegal positions? Or even worse, jobs wholly unrelated to the law? (Emily Bazelon brought up legal employment a couple of weeks ago on the Slate Political Gabfest, characterizing some jobs as being at fast-food restaurants; John Dickerson immediately quipped, “Order in the food court!” Ouch.) Jobs for which bar passage is required are by definition jobs as lawyers.

Next, there’s the question of quality. The alum’s framing of the question, I think, illustrates the problem in coming up with a good metric—what one person views as an excellent job saving the world, someone else is going to deride as do-gooder stuff (although he did grudgingly, implicitly acknowledge that people might want such a job).

We can tackle the problem with a couple of commonly accepted proxies, one of which is salary. Bear in mind that I personally am not suggesting money can buy you happiness, or love, because I have it on good authority that it can’t. Still—it’s a relevant question, since law schools charge money to attend.

We get salary information from two different sources: the grads themselves, to the extent they’re willing and able to share, and some of the employers. Unfortunately, because the employers that are most likely to provide the salary information are the biggest employers, that means there is some inherent skewing of results toward higher salaries. With that grain of salt firmly in place, then, I will report that of the 288 people going into private practice in 2009 (which is 73% of the employed cohort), we had salary data on 269, or 93%. The 25th percentile salary was $145,000, while the median and 75th percentile were both $160,000; the mean salary was $150,455. We also have salary data for 47 of the 54 grads who were judicial clerks; that range (median of $60,072, mean of $59,038) is less important, though, since those are typically one-year positions that position people quite well for taking other prestigious jobs. And while we have salary data for 5 of the 10 grads who went into government work, we lack data on the 1 academic, 32 public-interest, and 11 business positions.

Another frequently touted proxy for the quality metric is, for private sector employment, the size of the firm—although honestly, that itself is largely a proxy for salary, so I’m not sure it’s a valid independent indicator of anything. That said, of the 288 people going into private practice, 75% went to the nation’s largest (501+ lawyers) firms; another 10% went to firms of between 251 and 500.

Here’s a question NALP data doesn’t answer because thus far, it’s a question that hasn’t been asked. (Although word on the street—literally! I heard this when I bumped into someone on my way to lunch—is that the ABA’s next questionnaire might attempt to ferret this out.) How many of these are temporary jobs, funded by the Law School itself? The answer is 17: We funded 17 people on a temporary basis for jobs either at the Law School or in nonprofits, doing legal work. There are two common ways of characterizing that funding: one is that it’s a duplicitous, underhanded way to pump up employment numbers; the other is that it’s a supportive institutional move that helps position grads to find long-term legal employment during an unusually difficult economic downturn. In the words of one recipient, “I believe the was very helpful in allowing me to expand my skills and gain additional job experience. My background was in working for law firms…. allowed me to work for a very well-respected nonprofit. This made my transition to government work much easier.” You can guess which I think is the more sensible characterization.

And that brings up a point. So far, I’ve been loath to assign any qualitative assessment to any of this data. My goal has been just putting it out there and letting the reader decide. Some of you, however, may not share my love of data, and may be craving a summing-up. Let me go out on a limb: Michigan Law grads get jobs—and not in the food court.

-Dean Z.
Assistant Dean for Admissions and Special Counsel for Professional Strategies