Last year’s law school graduates landed fewer jobs in private practice than any class in the last two decades, according to the National Association for Law Placement, which tracks developments in the legal profession. However, USC Gould School of Law bucked the national trend, placing graduates in private practice well above the national average.
“Nationally, most lawyers work in private firms, which includes smaller and medium sized firms, not just large law firms,” said Elizabeth Armour, associate dean and dean of career services at Gould.
In light of the nationwide decrease, Gould Professor Gillian Hadfield noted that the national move away rom private practice jobs could be a sign of progress rather than one of stagnation.
“I think private practice jobs, particularly in big law firms, are increasingly not attractive or satisfying for new graduates,” Hadfield said. “Nor are they a good stepping-stone to the future. So I don’t see the shifts in employment patterns as signs of trouble, but signs of change, for the better.”
She commented on the changing nature of the legal field as a cause in this shift.
“Law is under a lot of pressure to change,” Hadfield said. “The systems we have now are really too expensive for all kinds of users — ordinary people and businesses. So the traditional ways of doing law are starting to change — some of the jobs law students used to get are, for example, being done through outsourcing or computer technology.”
In the years following the 2008 economic crash, employment for law school graduates steadily declined. However, in 2014, the percentage rose two percentage points, from 84.5 to 86.7 percent, where in remained in 2015.
Overall, 51.3 percent of students graduating in 2015 found jobs in private practice and about 30 percent were employed in public sectors such as the judiciary, military, and public interest organizations. Slightly more than 17 percent found jobs in business. Research shows that the largest employers in recent times have been larger law firms, which consist of 500 or more lawyers. While most job categories have lost positions over the last four years, these large firms have added more than 1,000 jobs.
“There’s still lots of work to be done, but the legal profession is proving slow to respond to connect people and businesses at reasonable cost with legal expertise,” Hadfield said. “Private practice is not an efficient business model for a lot of legal work these days — and I would expect that the law jobs of the future are less likely to be private practice and more likely to involve lawyers working with and for larger-scale businesses that can deliver legal services cost-effectively.”
Despite the job scarcity that arose after the 2008 recession, Armour believes that things have been improving.
“The most robust recovery has occurred in markets outside of Southern California, including in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York. Hence here at Gould we are working diligently to educate and encourage our students to look broadly geographically in order to increase their chances of securing a large law firm job,” Armour said.
Aura Gilham, a second year law student at Gould, offered nothing but praise for her experiences so far, highlighting how she is getting many opportunities to explore how law works in the real world, which will enable her to be prepared when she actually enters the field.
“I am absolutely loving law school — it is academically challenging, interesting and redefining. I have been able to participate in the community in ways I otherwise would not have been able to,” Gilham said.
Gilham is currently the managing editor of the Los Angeles Public Interest Law Journal as well as a member of the Southern California Law Review, which she credits to Gould.
“USC Law is an incredible school because it has put me in a strong position for both acquiring and performing well within a legal job. I worked in the private sector last summer, and I found the analytical skills I learned at USC prepared me extremely well,” Gilham said.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that fewer law school graduates are entering private practice from the Gould School of Law. This was incorrect. Fewer law school graduates nationwide are entering private practice, but Gould has remained above the national average.