The perception of law graduates is that they are standing solemn holding a law degree, resumes, and a heavy burden of loan debt they can't pay off. However, this isn't the case for all graduates. Many are becoming savvier and using their versatile J.D. beyond the traditional practice of law.
With an increase of nontraditional legal careers and the industry shift to utilize more outside resources, there has been a surge in what employers deems as "J.D. advantage" positions. And while the largest percentage of jobs secured are those where bar passage is required, this growth has helped to ease the swell of unemployed graduates.
Bar Passage Required vs. J.D. Advantage
For job seekers or those considering law school, what exactly do these terms mean?
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), J.D. required positions are those in which bar passage and being admitted to practice law in one or more jurisdictions are employment requisites. These tend to be the more traditional legal careers, such as positions in law firms, judicial clerkships, and some non-profit and government opportunities.
On the other hand, the ABA indicates that J.D. advantage jobs are those "for which the employer sought an individual with a J.D., and perhaps even required a J.D., or for which the J.D. provided a demonstrable advantage in obtaining or performing the job, but which does not itself require bar passage or an active law license or involve practicing law." These positions could be in personnel or human resources, consulting firms, investment banks, or compliance.
Much of the stats we see being reported, point to only those bar passage required positions and J.D. advantage positions typically fall into the "Other" category. This has led to grossly inflated unemployment rates for recent graduates.
What Does This Mean for Law Students?
For current or prospective students, this means two things. First, there are more employment opportunities in an already competitive marketplace and second, law schools are being forced to offer curriculum and experiential learning opportunities that prepare students for a variety of careers.
Responsive schools are now offering courses and guided curriculum around topics beyond bar tested subjects, including accounting, project management, and e-discovery. Substantive electives provide context and training for those interested in going into careers like tax advisement, wealth management, or healthcare. This has offered students a depth in understanding the context in which their degree can be applied, as well as critical training in a specialized practice area to increase their market value.
The Future of the Legal Industry
The fact is that traditional associate and attorney positions for all law graduates are remaining flat or slowly increasing. While these traditional careers are rebounding in light of the profession's changing landscape, other trending legal careers that do not require bar passage are seeing increased demand for specialized legal talent. Almost 15% of class of 2014 graduates held J.D. advantage positions, the highest percentage since the ABA began tracking the data.
J.D. advantage careers has helped to advance the legal industry by embracing its evolution. The employment growth underscores the next generation of lawyer's desire for nontraditional careers as well as the need for lawyers to fill these roles. And as more graduates fill advantaged positions, the perception of being less prestigious than bar required jobs begins to break down.
Thus, the more important paradigm shift is to stop thinking of law school employment outcomes one dimensionally, but rather how well law schools prepare future legal leaders to solve problems and are able to adeptly handle market forces, whether in the traditional or non-traditional contexts.
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