Are New Lawyers Ready for the Job?

Law firms expect stagnant growth or layoffs over the next three years, yet most recent law school graduates believe they will find new attorney positions immediately or within six months of graduation. And when they begin their job search, newly minted lawyers are more confident about their abilities than are the attorneys who hire them.

A recent first-of-its-kind study commissioned by BARBRI revealed these and other insights into the evolving legal industry.

Conducted in late 2014, the BARBRI State of the Legal Field Survey includes thoughts from the three groups most closely associated with the industry—law students, law school faculty, and practicing attorneys. The legal education experts at BARBRI commissioned the study to better understand some of the most widely discussed matters in law today. BARBRI plans to repeat the survey annually to track trends and to help identify solutions to industry challenges.

Findings from the first study show that students and attorneys have disparate opinions about some of the profession’s most critical components.

Practice Readiness

For example, 71 percent of 3L student respondents believe they “possess sufficient practice skills.” In contrast, only 23 percent of practicing attorneys who work with recent law school graduates agree.

When asked if they are ready to practice law “right now,” more than three-quarters (76 percent) of 3L law students answered in the affirmative, while just 56 percent of attorneys who work with recent law school graduates believe that they are prepared to practice law.

Job Market Outlook

Most law students who participated in the survey are optimistic about finding positions after passing the bar, even though attorneys expect a somewhat stagnant job market.

Most attorneys—81 percent—expect their law firms to stay the same size or decrease in size over the next three years. At companies with 1 to 10 attorneys, 91 percent of attorneys expect no growth or a decrease in size over the next three years. At firms with more than 10 lawyers, 72 percent of attorneys expect their companies to stay the same size or shrink in size over the next three years. So, attorneys working at companies with more than 10 lawyers tend to be more optimistic about employment trends than those working at smaller companies.

Even though jobs are scarce, almost half of law students (46 percent) expect to find a position practicing law immediately upon graduation, and 83 percent expect to have a law field job within six months. They also anticipate making more money than may actually be the case.

Attorneys at firms that hire recent law school graduates report a median starting salary of $50,000 per year, while law students reported expecting a median salary of  $70,000 per year. Further, 76 percent of attorneys surveyed expect salaries for recent law school graduates to stay about the same over the next three years.

Today’s law students have this unrealistic expectation in common with previous generations. Half of practicing attorneys expected to earn more than they actually did upon graduation from law school.

Return on Investment

Still, 78 percent of practicing attorneys say their incomes since graduation have justified the cost of their J.D.s.  Among lawyers who graduated more than 20 years ago, 91 percent feel their incomes have justified the cost of their legal education. A similar number of law students—82 percent—expect to get good value out of the money they’re spending on their legal education.

When asked if they had it to do all over again, would they go to law school, the number of attorneys who said, “yes” is  somewhat lower but still high. Of all attorneys surveyed, 72 percent of practicing attorneys said in hindsight, they’d still go to law school. Among lawyers who graduated more than 20 years ago, 79 percent said they’d study law if they could do it again; just 58 percent of attorneys who graduated less than 20 years ago would make the same decision.

Most attorneys agree that new lawyers require further training. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of practicing attorneys at companies that hire recent law school graduates estimate that it takes one to two years or more to begin seeing a “return on investment” in a newly hired recent law school graduate.

About the State of the Legal Field Survey

BARBRI is helping to bring key industry matters like practice-readiness and the attorney job market into sharper focus through the State of the Legal Field Survey. Each year, the survey  will identify areas of consensus as well as those matters on which opinions vary in an effort to improve the industry’s outlook. The survey underscores BARBRI’s almost half-century-long commitment to shaping the evolving legal landscape.

BARBRI commissioned an independent research firm specializing in the legal industry to contact more than 1,500 law school students, law school faculty members, and practicing attorneys for the study. A total of 1,244 students and 250 practicing attorneys completed questionnaires. Almost half of the students were 3Ls, and about one-third were 2Ls.

Of the attorneys who participated, 69 percent graduated from law school more than 20 years ago. Over half of the lawyers (60 percent) were engaged in private practice.

About the Author

Mike Sims is president of BARBRI (, the bar review pioneer and leading legal education firm for law students and practicing attorneys. Follow Mike on Twitter @barbrisims.

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