Employment rises above historic median despite drop in bar passage rates

The employment rate for law school graduates may have just passed its historic median. The American Bar Association reported last week that the percent of graduates who held full-time, long-term, Bar Passage Required or J.D. Advantage jobs roughly 10 months after graduation increased from 70 percent for the class of 2015 to 73 percent for the class of 2016.

Those figures rise to 75 percent for the class of 2016 when excluding students pursuing a graduate law degree and including short-term positions, a figure that matches the median from 2001 to 2008, when NALP collected employment data and did not separate short-term from long-term positions. 

What makes the class of 2016 employment rate even more impressive is that the percent of graduates who landed a full-time jobs may be higher than the percent who passed the bar exam. While the ABA has not released bar passage data for the class of 2016, several states have reported further declines in passage rates, meaning the national rate should be less than the 75.6 percent that was posted for the class of 2015. Of the class of 2016, 74.3 landed full-time jobs and 78.6 percent had full or part-time jobs (64.5 percent had jobs that required bar exam passage, and an additional 14.1 percent had JD preferred jobs). 

From 2001 to 2008, the first time bar passage rate for ABA graduates hovered between 78 and 83 percent, with 85 to 90 percent of those graduates landing bar exam-required jobs. The class of 2016 appears to have followed the same pattern, with the number of bar exam-required jobs at a minimum of 90 percent of the number of graduates who passed the bar. 

Many observers have pointed out that the number of jobs actually declined, and the percent only increased because the class of 2016 was 7 percent smaller than the class of 2015. Indeed, the number of graduates was more than 30 percent smaller than in 2011, when employment reached its low. Critics say this is a reflection of a legal market that continues to struggle. 

But Jim Leipold, executive director of NALP, has pointed out that there will always be law school graduates who are not employable ten months after graduation, primarily because they did not pass the bar exam. Bar exam passage rates have dropped the last three years, from 82.5 percent for the class of 2013 to 75.6 percent for the class of 2015. Depending on how much the pass rate dropped for the class of 2016, the percent of graduates who passed the bar exam and landed a bar required-job could be higher than at any other time in the past 20 years. 

Further showing strength in the job market, the number of graduates landing positions at law firms increased, even if just slightly, with 44 percent of graduates working at law firms. That could be related to the fact that job candidates are migrating to higher paying jobs.

The University of Pennsylvania led all schools, with 96.7 percent landing full-time, long-term Bar Passage Required or J.D. Advantage jobs. It was one of 13 schools that reported a number above 90 percent.

At the other extreme, only 27.9 percent of graduates from Charlotte School of Law reported full-time, long-term Bar Passage Required or J.D. Advantage jobs. Only 46 percent of the class passed the bar exam in 2015. Still, the school reported that 61.4 percent of the class of 2016 were employed in some capacity. The Department of Education pulled Title IV federal financial aid from Charlotte earlier this year. Its actions were driven by the school’s noncompliance with standards set by the American Bar Association, which placed the school on probation in November.

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