Don LeDuc, Cooley Law School's President, has been trumpeting supposedly low unemployment rates among lawyers. Others have taken up that cry, either by name or anonymously. Matt Leichter debunked these arguments almost a year ago, but they keep recurring. So let's look one more time at the facts.
LeDuc and the others imbibing Cooley-ade note that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.1% of lawyers were unemployed in 2011. Since 8.9% of the general workforce was unemployed that year, that 2.1% is a pretty alluring number. Prospective law students are likely to jump to the conclusion that 97.9% of JDs were gainfully employed in jobs using their degrees. Only stands to reason, right?
Sorry, but no. As labor economists recognize, skilled workers can--and do--take jobs below their training level. The four largest occupations in the United States are: retail salesperson, cashier, office clerk, and fast food worker. A JD holder can do any of those jobs. Likewise, most law graduates could fill seven of the next eight most populous jobs: waiter or waitress; customer service representative; janitor or cleaner; laborer or freight/stock mover; secretary or administrative assistant; general or operations manager; and stock clerk or order filler. Only one of the twelve most common U.S. jobs, registered nurse, requires training that a JD lacks.
The eleven open-to-JD occupations listed above, by the way, account for a full 21.3% of the U.S. labor force. So a lawyer almost always can get a job. The question is what kind of job can the lawyer get--and will the job justify the cost of obtaining a law degree?
On that question, we have very informative data. NALP reports that, a full nine months after graduation, 9.6% of 2011 law school graduates were unemployed and seeking work; they had no jobs whatsoever. Another 10.0% were working part-time, and still another 5% held full-time jobs for which the JD conferred no advantage. One out of every four graduates was unemployed, working part-time, or not using their JD.
Even that is a low estimate of under-employment among law school graduates. It doesn't account for the graduates working in temporary, contract law jobs. It doesn't account for the graduates who are unemployed but have stopped seeking work. It doesn't account for the graduates who disappeared, leaving no trace of any jobs for their law schools to report (6.5% in that category alone). Nor does it account for the graduates working in "JD advantage" jobs that they might have obtained with just a BA. All told, a full nine months after graduation, only 56% of the JD class of 2011 held full-time jobs that required bar admission.
The other 44% aren't college graduates with a BA in Renaissance Humanism or Heavy Drinking. Those grads might take a year or two to find a suitable job. Law graduates are hard workers with seven years of expensive higher education under their belts. Most of them started seeking legal jobs two-and-a-half years before graduation. Their high rates of under- and unemployment nine months after graduation speak volumes about the current state of the legal market.
Touting the BLS occupational unemployment statistics is one of the most misleading statements a law school professor or administrator can make; it shows a complete misunderstanding of the labor market. The BLS, in fact, doesn't even publish these statistics on its website; labor economists know that these figures tell very little. Instead, listen to what the BLS itself advises about careers in law: "Competition for jobs should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available." Right: About twice as many students as jobs.