Everybody interested in the economics of the American legal profession is familiar with Bill Henderson's analysis of what he's identified as the bimodal distribution of reported entry-level salaries in the current market. Henderson notes this distribution didn't exist 20 years ago, when the median salary for entry-level hires who reported salary data to NALP was $40K, which happens to be exactly the same figure as in 2010, adjusted for inflation ($63K).
Henderson has done invaluable work in this area, and was as far as I know the first legal academic to sound the alarm about what the combination of rising tuition and changes in the market for legal services portended for law school graduates and legal education. I do wish that he was more emphatic about the limitations of the data he's working with -- for example readers of the linked post, analyzing the NALP data for the class of 2008, could easily miss that the self-reported salary data (update: a commenter points out that while the data is self-reported by graduates to law schools, it's reported by law schools to NALP, which creates further opportunities for intentional and unintentional distortion) includes slightly more than half (22,305) of ABA-accredited law school grads for that year. The 2009 data is even more problematic in this regard: only 19,471 out of approximately 44,000 graduates (44.25%) self-reported full-time salary information to NALP.
It's of course not surprising that general interest journalism stories, and even those in the legal press, report these figures as if they made up something other than a radically incomplete, unrepresentative, and unaudited data set, but those of us in legal academia concerned with this issue need to keep emphasizing how bad the NALP data is (It's still much better than the purported employment information USNWR reports however, which in turn is better than the job numbers advertised in the ABA Guide to law schools. Needless to say prospective law students are going to look at the latter sources rather than the former.)
Turning from bad data to real anecdotes, here are three such stories I've run into in just the past two days:
(1) A friend of mine, a Michigan law school grad from the class of 2009 who is finishing up a two-year stint on the staff of a federal court, is of course now looking for another job. He applied for a similar position and was told that more than 1,000 applications had already been received for the two available spots.
(2) A local telecommunications firm put up an ad last week for a part-time legal clerk. The ad made clear that law school graduates were not eligible to apply: only current law students qualified to be candidates for this part-time $20 per hour position (the position was filled within a couple of days).
(3) Here's a current job listing from the city of Denver for a judicial assistant. The job description, which was obviously written by a lawyer, sounds vaguely like entry-level associate work at a lot of big firms. This position, however, requires only a high school diploma or GED, or "a combination of appropriate education and experience." Almost all lawyers, however, are not actually qualified for this job, as the position also requires three years of clerical experience, of which two must be in a legal setting. The salary range ($39,463.00 - $57,643.00) may at the low end overlap the actual current median salary of the law school class of 2010, and is almost certainly higher than the actual current median salary of the class of 2011 (Based on the preliminary data I've seen it seems probable that more than half of the 2011 class is at this moment completely unemployed -- and not just in regard to legal jobs, but in terms of having any job at all).