Job market improving for recent graduates

By Thomas Franz
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Salaries and employment rates are increasing for recent law school graduates nationally.

The National Association for Law Placement released its 2017 employment report Aug. 2. It showed that the overall employment rate for 2017 graduates was 88.6 percent, one percentage point higher than the previous year, and the highest rate since the recession.

Median salaries for the 2017 class jumped by $5,000 from the 2016 class, from $65,000 to $70,000.

Average salaries increased from $90,305 to $95,320.

The report also showed there was an increase in the percentage of graduates taking jobs which required bar passage. That figure rose from 67.7 percent to 71.8 percent, representing a single-year increase that was greater than the previous four years combined.

Michigan numbers

Locally, the most recent data comes from the 2017 Economics of Law Practice in Michigan survey conducted by the State Bar of Michigan.

For full-time private practitioners with between one and two years of experience, the survey showed a median income of $55,000.

"Three years ago, we were seeing the impact of the recession. We were coming out of it at that time, but there had been a decline. It certainly has shown improvement since that time. I think the economy overall, particularly in Michigan, that showed up in both of those survey results," said Anne Vrooman, director of research and development at the State Bar of Michigan.

Vrooman said billing rates are a key indicator for the state of the economy, and that improved in the latest survey.

In 2013, the median billing rate for attorneys with one to two years of experience was $189, and in 2017 it was $200.

"Definitely in the 2010 time period and a couple years after, a real shrinkage in jobs open. We really saw the market shrinking that way and people not being able to get jobs," Vrooman said. "Law school classes are somewhat smaller now, so there's been a shift in what the general market is."

Charles Toy, associate dean of career and professional development at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, said students there are seeing a better job market now.

WMU-Cooley's job placement rate has increased 6.3 percent since two years ago, Toy said.

"I think it's exciting to see it. It's also exciting where we're seeing it. We're seeing a lot of jobs in new areas," Toy said. "The old saying is you'll be practicing law that's not even on the books yet. Drone law, augmented reality law, medical marijuana and a lot of social media wasn't around 10-20 years ago."

Large East Coast

firms in salary war

In Boston and New York City, salaries have increased in much more dramatic fashion.

A New York City firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, kicked off the last salary war in 2016 by raising starting pay for first-year associates from $160,000 to a new Big Law industry standard of $180,000.

Following that, New York firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy announced that it had increased its salary structure effective July 1. Though the headline was that associates in the 2017-2018 class would be paid $190,000, the firm revealed it was making corresponding increases to associates hired in the previous seven years.

For example, the firm set $330,000 as the new annual base salary for the class of associates hired in 2010.

Since then, law firms across the country have moved to match or even exceed the $190,000 benchmark.

Industry website Above the Law has been tracking the pay increases across the country in a "Salary Wars Scorecard."

According to the website, Boston firms Choate, Hall & Stewart, WilmerHale, Ropes & Gray, and Goodwin have already raised annual salaries for starting associates to meet Milbank's $190,000 mark.

The benchmark has also been met by some international law firms with offices in Boston, including Proskauer Rose, Kirkland & Ellis and Jones Day.

New York firm Kasowitz, Benson & Torres upped the ante on July 9, announcing that it would be paying first-year associates $195,000.

WilmerHale declined a request for an interview concerning its salary structure. In a written statement, the firm simply says: "We have set compensation at market."

A Choate spokesman confirms that the firm has upped its starting associate salary to $190,000 and base annual salary for sixth-year associates to $305,000. The firm says it otherwise doesn't comment on employee compensation.

Published: Thu, Aug 30, 2018