As a law student, it is easy to assume that the type of job you take directly after law school will be the only type of job you will have in your career. But research actually shows that where you start out is often not where you end up five, 10, 20, or more years postgraduation. Data from a series of comprehensive studies on the legal profession, including the After the JD (AJD) study, the Harvard Law School Career Study (HLSCS), and the Harvard Law School Reports on the State of Black Alumni, I and II, suggests that lawyer careers are perhaps more likely to zig and zag than proceed in a straight line.
See the Original Research
After the JD, a study conducted under the auspices of the American Bar Foundation, is a longitudinal study that tracks the professional lives of more than 5,000 lawyers who entered the bar in or around the year 2000 through their first 10 to 12 years after law school. The first wave of the study (AJD 1) was conducted in 2002–2003, the second wave (AJD 2) in 2007–2008, and the third and final wave (AJD 3) in 2011–2012.
The Harvard Law School Career Study (HLSCS) combines data from two unique sources: a comprehensive career survey of graduates, and admissions data and transcripts. The Center on the Legal Profession designed and administered the survey of four graduating classes: 1975 (one of the first classes where women represented a significant percentage of students); 1985; 1995; and 2000 (the last class that had been out of law school long enough to achieve important career milestones and the class best comparable to the nationwide sample in the After the JD study). Data was also collected from a random representative sample of female and male graduates from the 1950s and ’60s.
The two Reports on the State of Black Alumni document the achievements and experiences of Harvard Law School’s black alumni through extensive surveys sent out to virtually all living black HLS alumni about their careers since graduating from law school. The surveys asked questions about career trajectories and mobility, employment status, job satisfaction, the impact of race and other demographic characteristics on career paths, and other important professional and individual issues. More than 550 individuals completed the 2000 survey, leading to the Center on the Legal Profession’s Report on the State of Black Alumni. In 2016 the Center produced an update to and extension of this important project and published the Report on the State of Black Alumni II.
Learn more about these studies here.
On the most basic level, data from these three sources all illustrate that the practice setting in which lawyers start their careers post–law school is unlikely to be the practice setting in which they remain throughout the entirety of their careers. In particular, there is a trend toward movement away from the private sector. For example, in AJD 1, about 70 percent of respondents were working in private law firms. By AJD 2, a little more than half (55 percent) were working in private law firms, with a large number going into the business sector and smaller numbers into nonprofits and education. Similarly, in the Harvard Law School Career Study, there is a general migration of HLS graduates out of the law firm sector. For example, 57 percent of the 1985 cohort entered law firms as their first job post-HLS. By the time we surveyed these graduates, the portion of that cohort working in law firms had dropped to 37 percent overall. This trend holds for all four of the cohorts examined. Finally, in the Report on the State of Black Alumni II, about 70 percent of respondents went into private practice for their first job post-HLS. When asked to report on their current position, about one-quarter reported still being in private practice.
While this confirms what we know about lawyers’ careers over time, and the migration out of private practice specifically, it is worth noting that black HLS graduates migrate out of private practice at much higher rates than both white and black lawyers nationally. Our data shows a whopping 63 percent decrease in the number of black HLS graduates in private practice compared to their first job post-HLS. By comparison, the AJD found that 38 percent of black lawyers in private practice in AJD 1 had left the sector by AJD 3—10 percent more than the 28 percent of white lawyers who did so, but a full 22 percent below our finding here.
Research shows that where you start out is often not where you end up five, 10, 20, or more years postgraduation.
The data also offers insights into the frequency of change within individual careers. Indeed, AJD data reveals that lawyers move around quite a bit, and often to entirely new practice settings. When AJD respondents were first surveyed just two to three years after passing the bar, more than one-third had already switched jobs. By the time they were surveyed seven to eight years after passing the bar, respondents had on average changed jobs at least once. Moreover, a majority (52 percent) of those AJD respondents who reported moving to a new job between AJD 1 and AJD 2 also reported moving to a new practice setting. Adding in AJD 3 data, lawyers had as many as four different jobs in the first 12 years of their career.
Data collected in the HLSCS further supports this overall trend. The table below reports the average number of jobs held by graduates of each cohort, and the apparent acceleration across cohorts is also worth noting. Whereas members of the 1975 cohort had on average 3.4 employers over the course of their then-40-year careers (the point at which they were surveyed), those in the 2000 cohort had already had an average of 2.7 employers in just 10 years.
Average Number of Employers
All this is not to say the likelihood of changing jobs or practice settings is uniform across all areas of the bar. There is data that suggests those who start out in the public sector are more likely to stay put than those who start out in the private sector, at least among a certain population of HLS graduates. According to the Report on the State of Black Alumni II, nearly half (42.3 percent) of respondents who reported starting their careers in the public sector were still working in government, public interest, or legal services by the time of the survey. On the other end, of those who reported starting their legal careers in private practice, fewer than one-third (28.5 percent) remained there at the time of the survey.
When AJD respondents were first surveyed just two to three years after passing the bar, more than one-third had already switched jobs.
There is no question that lawyers are increasingly moving between jobs, which often takes them in and out of different practice settings. Beyond that, however, it is not clear whether all this movement is necessarily channeling lawyers from one specific setting to another—for instance, from large law firms to public-interest organizations or vice versa. One thing that is clear is that the majority of lawyers enter the profession through private practice. The HLSCS reports nearly two-thirds (61.8 percent) starting out in law firms, and the Report on the State of Black Alumni II reports nearly three-quarters starting out in private practice (71.9 percent). These figures line up with the AJD’s finding that nearly 70 percent of respondents were working in law firms two to three years into their careers. In short, the majority of new lawyers are beginning their careers in law firms. Nevertheless, the legal profession is constantly shuffling and reshuffling, with lawyers moving between large law firms, small law firms, government, business, public interest, education, and elsewhere. Thus students who are stuck in decision paralysis should take solace in the empirical finding that lawyers are not stuck in their career choices (especially in the early years, where they are very far from stuck).