The most terrifying figure I'm seeing from this -- although they didn't break down percentages for 2011 -- is that in 2008, 66% of our grads went to firms. In 2011, 40% did. That's an enormous drop.
GW, by virtue of being high-quality and located in DC, had the opportunity to assuage this somewhat by shifting to government. But even then, the hiring freeze has clearly taken a toll. We jumped from 13% to 21% in government in 2010 -- and then back to 17% in 2011.
The jobs simply aren't there. I'm thrilled that we just released these numbers in the interest of transparency, but the real lesson I learned from the numbers is that the industry is bleeding jobs and our career services office simply can't keep up (if trying to distort market reality is even their responsibility in the first place). It is, in your own words, the classic "trap" situation.
Personally, I'm doing ok. I had done my research and knew exactly why I wanted to go to law school, and I've loved it. Then, I didn't go to the best school I got into, I went to the best school that gave me the most money. Because of my scholarship (thankfully endowed, not cross-subsidized), I'm nowhere near the full debt load of my peers. But my debtload is still a lot higher than I had budgeted coming into law school. I'm in the top 15% of my class, but in spite of many callbacks and dozens of other interviews I had no offers as a 2L. Iended up working, for free (see: budget crisis), for the federal government during the summer and school year. I impressed my office but even after 8 months they had no funding to guarantee me a paid position. I'd be starving right now and unable to even pay the bar exam fees if my well-salaried romantic partner wasn't currently subsidizing my existence.
As a 3L, with the prospects of an offer from the government at nil, I did a massive direct write campaign to more than a hundred law firms,and called in every even tenuous connection I had. Miraculously, after many more interviews and callbacks, I got one single offer, in my desired practice area, from a firm. I'm incredibly thankful, but it was one of the most stressful experiences I've eve been through. Many of my friends at the top of my class are in a worse position; the bottom half is struggling even more. And we're still a top 20 school in a great location. My friends at top-30 but rural schools can't find anything. And once you fall below that, it's a bloodbath.
Lawyers basically do two things: work for law firms, and work for the government. (Yes this is an oversimplification. Sometimes they manage the St. Louis Cardinals or run the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a versatile degree!). 70% of GW's most recent class are supposedly in such positions, but when you start digging into the numbers a lot of rats scurry out of the dark (15% of this group have jobs with firms of 10 or fewer attorneys or are going solo, both of which are categories that include a lot of essentially imaginary employment, while "government" work has the charming characteristic of sometimes turning out to be completely unpaid, due to its exemption from many of the requirements of FLSA.)I'm a hard-working middle-class kid with parents who were hit hard by the economic crash. In an absolute emergency they might be able to bail me out, but it'd be tight. That's the main reason I didn't go to T-14 schools, even though I got in. The cost was prohibitive to a middle-class kid. Back during application season as a 0L, I visited one T-14, and literally started crying because I felt like I fit in perfectly but knew there was no way I or my family could afford the $180K price tag. The other students there either were having their parents pay the price tag in cash, or were utterly naive about how much money the education actually cost, and what the opportunities would be coming out. (To quote one: "Yeah, I figure the debt is the equivalent of buying a house. But any lawyer from this school should be able to afford two houses.")
I know I've gotten lucky. But many of my friends demographically identical to me have not been so fortunate. Something is fundamentally wrong with this system when even the smart, savvy, hard-working, middle-class kids who want to live the American Dream are priced out, from the beginning, of going to good schools. And even when they do go to those schools, they've been fed lies about jobs which don't exist. That's not the America I was raised to believe in.
Right now, firms aren't hiring much and government, in many places, isn't hiring period. This was driven home to me yet again yesterday during a conversation with an unemployed 2011 grad of a school solidly within the top 20 (grades in the top 40%; tons of extra-curriculars; winning personality blah blah blah). He pointed out that when calculating acceptable outcomes for graduates of expensive elite and sub-elite schools -- the HELP list -- I may have been a little too hasty to treat federal judicial clerkships as unambiguously "good" outcomes. He keeps in close touch with most of the federal clerks in his class and tells me that many of them have not been able to find any post-clerkship employment yet. In particular he referenced a friend who has top 15% grades from this top fifteenish school, is Hispanic, female, conventionally attractive (unfortunately this as everyone knows is a factor in hiring), liked by everyone, and working for a judge who normally only hires from HYS, but who still can't get a job. He spoke to a lawyer at the big firm in the building where he offices (he is self-employed and is receiving a small "fellowship" stipend from his alma mater) about this clerk -- networking! -- and the lawyer said this sounded like an ideal candidate and she would speak to the hiring partner immediately. She did but . . . the firm isn't hiring at all right now (this is a several-hundred attorney shop).
Yes anecdotes are not data but the data are terrible enough.
Speaking of which, I got an email this week from a stressed and depressed 1L at a "top tier" school where perhaps 40% of the grads are getting real legal jobs, liberally defined. The student has middle of the class grades, is debt-financing law school, logs onto the internet occasionally, and therefore realizes that Houston we have a problem (a remarkable number of 1Ls remain innocent of this knowledge). The student spoke about his/her concerns to one of his/her professors who assured the student "that there is no need to worry, because [ ] is a top tier law school. She/he also said that being an average B student is ok since we're all excellent, and that there will be jobs for us. (Somehow, this was not very comforting)."
Stupid or evil? In this business both charity and experience continue to suggest the former remains the more likely explanation, at least for now.