Job Market for 2021 Law Graduates is One of the Strongest Ever

August 25, 2022

August 25, 2022

Job Market for 2021 Law Graduates is One of the Strongest Ever

Law graduates of the class of 2021 are experiencing record high salaries and employment, according to selected findings from the National Association for Law Placement released in July 2022. NALP is a career services, recruitment, and professional development organization that promotes ethical recruiting and provides employment data and career guidance for law students and lawyers. NALP plans to release its full Jobs and JDs report in October.

Executive director James G. Leipold noted that the employment and salary data was among the strongest he has seen in his 18 years with NALP. He opined that, after 2020’s widespread shutdown, pent-up need for legal services and demand for talent at the largest law firms fed an economic rebound. The legal employment market for new law school graduates proved to be resilient despite economic challenges and the market interruptions and complications that marked the start of the COVID-19 era.

At 91.9%, the class of 2021’s overall employment rate rose 3.5% from 2020 and matched the 2007 rate as the highest in the last 30+ years. For the first time since 2013, the actual number of jobs obtained grew, increasing from the prior year by almost 2,400, and the number of jobs rose in every category except for solo practitioner, which hit a record low.  

Law grads of 2021 took a record high number and percentage of jobs in law firms with 500+ lawyers. For the first time, the percentage of graduates taking those Big Law jobs—31.8%—was larger than the percentage taking jobs in firms of 10 or less lawyers—30.7%.  

The percentage of jobs in private practice was the highest since 2003, suggesting a preference for private practice work over business jobs among students. While business has historically been the second-most common destination for law graduates behind law firms, grads in the last three years have taken jobs in business, government, and as judicial clerks in about equal distribution, with business falling behind government.  

Judicial clerkships and other government sector jobs remained stable, but public interest jobs have steadily risen in the past 5 years. 2021 matched 2020’s record for the highest percent of these jobs ever reported, with the actual number of public interest jobs reaching an all-time high of 2,758.  

Despite more JD Advantage opportunities like compliance work, the percentage of graduates taking those jobs fell, hinting that many graduates prefer bar passage required jobs. The percentage of graduates taking jobs for which bar passage is required or anticipated was 78.2% and those taking full-time, long-term jobs in the bar passage category was 76.7%. Both figures represent further record highs.

The overall unemployment rate, measured 10 months after graduation, fell from 9.3% to 6.3% in 2020, and those who were unemployed but still seeking work fell from 8.1% to 5.2%.  

Record high starting salary figures included the national median salary ($80,000), national average salary ($109,469), national median law firm salary ($131,500) and national average law firm salary ($137,844).  

Leipold said a robust market for summer associates and consistent graduating class size are signs that law grads for the next two years can count on a thriving legal jobs market. After that, the outlook may be murkier, particularly if the United States enters a recession. Big law firms have begun to face rising expenses and a downturn in demand for legal services, and the 2024 graduating class size will be about 4,500 students larger than classes of the preceding 6 years.  

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