There's an old joke about people going to law school because they're not good at math. Apparently it's not that much of a joke. The thread to this post features an all-too-characteristic squabble about whether a graduate of a lower tier law school who finished at the top of his class but can't get a job as a lawyer is striking out because he doesn't come across well in interviews. This kind of thing is exasperating for a number of reasons, not least of which is that, as a matter of empirical statistical analysis (there's that math again) an ability to come across well in interviews has basically no correlation with subsequent job performance. This in turn isn't surprising, given that whether you like somebody in an interview context has almost everything to do with considerations of social class, aesthetic preferences, and cultural capital, and almost nothing to do with rational judgments regarding actual ability.
A yet more aggravating aspect of these arguments is how beside the point they are. In every particular case a law graduate doesn't get a particular job as a lawyer for some particular reason. It may be because he didn't go to a good enough law school to get this job, or because her grades weren't good enough, or because he doesn't have five years of relevant practice experience, or because she doesn't know who Justin Verlander is, or because he isn't the son of a major stockholder in a corporation represented by the firm, or because she's not a member of an under-represented minority group, or because he is a member of an under-represented minority group, or because any of five hundred other reasons, good and bad alike, for "failure."
In every particular case there's a particular reason, but all those individual cases add up to a general proposition, which is that ABA-accredited law schools are currently producing (at least) two graduates for every available law job. Here's a proposition that should win somebody a Nobel prize in economics: If there are at least two ABA law school graduates for every law job, the long-term legal unemployment rate for law school graduates is going to be at least 50%. Contrary to the magical thinking to which law school administrators and career services offices are prone, improving the interviewing skills and "networking" abilities of your graduates has exactly zero effect on this situation.
In 2010, ABA-accredited law schools, who have extremely powerful incentives to discover the extent to which their graduates have legal jobs, and indeed are increasingly inventing "jobs" for ever-larger proportions of their graduates, were able to report that a total of 58% of their graduates had full-time employment requiring a law degree nine months after graduation. But consider what that figure includes:
(1) Temp work. If during the NALP survey window a graduate happened to be on a six-week document review project requiring 40 hours per week of work and the possession of a law degree (as most such projects do), then guess what: that person counts as someone who has full-time employment requiring a law degree.
(2) "Jobs" that feature a nominal or completely non-existent salary. How many graduates of the class of 2010 listed themselves as employed full-time in a position requiring a law degree when what they were doing was working for free? Given that only 40% of the national class of 2010 reported a salary to NALP, and given that a brief tour of the interwebs reveals that a lot of law school graduates are working for free, the answer is "we don't actually know (because we don't want to know)" but the number appears to be, as the stats people say, non-trivial.
(3) "Jobs" invented by law schools to pump up putative employment rates. This category included more than 4% of all "jobs" reported by 2010 graduates, and there's every indication that the 2011 number in for this category is going to be much, much higher.
(4) Short-term positions which will leave those in them unemployed within a few months after the survey window. Judicial clerkships fall in this category: the NALP definition of "short term" employment is any employment that is scheduled to last less than one year. This allows schools to list their graduates in judicial clerkships as having long-term employment. Now while it's true that an Article III clerkship is usually something a graduate took when the graduate would have had the option of a taking a long-term full-time job requiring a law degree, Article III clerkships make up a very small percentage of judicial clerkships as a whole. Most judicial clerkships are state district court positions that, in the vast majority of cases, are going to leave those who take them searching for legal employment quite shortly. But they can be -- and often are -- counted by schools as full-time long-term employment requiring a law degree.
(5) Unsustainable forms of self-employment. Nearly one third of 2010 law graduates who listed themselves as employed full-time in a position requiring a law degree were either in solo practices or with "firms" of 2-10 employees. Many of the latter positions consist of a couple of new grads opening a law office and trying to make a go of it, in a hyper-saturated market in which they (naturally) have almost no idea what they're doing, because the whole "practicing law" thing -- not to mention the "running your own small business" thing -- wasn't covered during the course of their legal education.
It's safe to say the statistic that 58% of 2010 grads were discovered to be in full-time employment requiring a law degree nine months after graduation is a very significant overstatement of the true legal employment rate for recent law graduates. And the true legal employment rate for recent law graduates has, in the end, nothing to do with whether this or that person had good grades, or good people skills, or good connections, or anything else. People don't get jobs as lawyers because there are more than twice as many law school graduates as there are jobs for lawyers. This ratio is, from the perspective of new graduates, getting worse every day. Any discussion of law school reform that doesn't put this fact front and center is just whistling past an increasingly full professional graveyard.