California Legal Market Update: Not So Golden

California Legal Market Update: Not So Golden

All that glitters is not gold when it comes to California’s job outlook for new lawyers. ABA data shows that the Golden State's law schools have a tougher time placing graduates in law jobs than their counterparts in other states.

Dismal employment rates

Employment rates vary significantly among California's many law schools. Top-ranked institutions, such as The University of California, Berkeley School of Law, Stanford Law School, and the UCLA School of Law each placed more than eighty percent of their 2014 graduates into full-time, long-term law jobs 10 months after graduation. (That is the employment statistic used by US News in their rankings.) This contrasts sharply with the experience of lower-tier schools, however, where barely a third, if that, of their 2014 graduates landed full-time law jobs. Even California law schools near the middle of U.S. News & World Report's rankings offered no guarantee of an attorney job.

All told, only about half of 2014 California’s law school graduates secured full-time, long-term jobs that require a law degree 10 months after graduation. Those numbers fall well below the national average of sixty percent, and the two-thirds of law grads from schools in New York and Pennsylvania, who find law jobs according to ABA data.

Supply exceeds demand

California’s 21 ABA-accredited law schools produced 4,362 juris doctors in 2015. The huge graduating classes, along with the legal industry’s slow post-recession recovery, exacerbated the problem. Even though California’s law schools shrank, the 28 percent drop in the average size of incoming law classes between 2010 and 2014 provides no guarantee of appropriate jobs for new lawyers.

To make matters worse, California also has the largest number of law schools unranked by U.S. News, including 36 institutions accredited only by the State Bar of California, not by the ABA. Those unranked schools (both ABA-accredited and unaccredited) tend to admit students with lower academic indicators and have lower employment and bar passage rates.

California's geographical desirability only adds to the problem. Despite the odds, prospective students from out of state are drawn here and many Golden State residents don’t wish to attend law school elsewhere. A high percentage of the state's law students, both native and non-native, want to practice here, as well, which only increases competition for jobs. Furthermore, despite the fact that California has a large population, it doesn't have the same concentration of large law firms such as is found in New York and Washington, D.C.

Shorter Bar Exam

It’s not all bad news for new lawyers wishing to practice in California, however. The California Bar Exam just got shorter (though probably not any easier). Effective in July 2017, the exam is reduced from its current three day ordeal to just two. The new version consists of five one-hour essays and one 90-minute performance test on the first day, and 200 multiple-choice questions, the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), on the second day. Currently, those sitting for the California Bar Exam write six essays over six hours and complete two lengthy performance tests.

Under the new rules, an applicant's score on the single performance test is worth twice the amount as an essay-question score, consistent with current grading policies established by the Committee of Bar Examiners. Also, the MBE portion is worth a full 50 percent of the exam, up from the present 35 percent, which is good news or bad news, depending upon whether the test-taker is better at an essay or multiple-choice format. 

The jury is out as to whether reducing the length of the Bar Exam will have any effect on the number of newly admitted lawyers in California. In any event, unfortunately, it won’t make it any easier to find a law job in the Golden State.

Valerie Fontaine
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