Law grads gravitate to public work

After spending $36,490 a year on their law school educations, come graduation Yale Law students are more likely than those at their peer institutions to practice a type of law that will earn them one-third the amount that they could be earning at a private firm.

In most other “top-tier” law schools around the country, the majority of graduates work for corporate firms after graduation. At Yale, although a significant number of students in recent classes entered corporate law, students have also been drawn in large numbers to public service.

“I do think the school has a reputation for excellence in public service which attracts students to it,” Yale Law School Career Development Director Terri Bryant said. “We have an extremely high atmosphere of public service… but also statistics for students pursuing that line of work.”

Though statistics differ widely between those for a graduating class a year after graduation and those for a graduating class four or five years later, Bryant said that in the beginning, usually about half of Yale’s graduating class will pursue a judicial clerkship — a higher percentage of students than for many of its peer schools. The National Association for Law Placement has statistical data indicating that nationally around 60 percent of law school graduates work for private firms upon graduation, a pattern that has remained fairly consistent over the past 20 years.

In recent years around 60 to 70 percent of those Yalies have usually entered private law firms as their first job after a judicial clerkship, and around 20 percent entered the public service sector.

With an average starting salary of around $125,000 a year for Yale graduates at private firms around the country, the $30,000 to $50,000 that one can earn for public interest work might be seen as a disincentive, but Bryant said that money tends not to be that important a factor.

Bryant said Yale Law School is also known for the number of its students that enter the academic profession. For those that do choose to pursue a career path in this area, they normally go to work for several years and then enter the market for teaching law two to five years after graduation she said, although occasionally students will go right into the teaching force. Anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the graduating class has gone straight into teaching law in the past four years.

“Yale graduates probably represent 10 percent of the teaching market, which is enormous compared to the size of our school,” Bryant said.

At Harvard, the most common career choice for students by far is the corporate law firm, Harvard Law School Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark Weber said yesterday.

Weber added that this has always been the case at Harvard, but that after Sept. 11, there had also been an increasing number of students who had gone into public service working for the government.

A representative at the Stanford Law School said that there was not one particular field of law that students were especially attracted to, but the majority of students entered a private law firm.

James Leipold, the executive director of the NALP, said the vast majority of law school graduates have consistently entered private practice in recent decades.

“The last 30 years there has actually been very little fluctuation in the percentage of law school graduates entering each of the six major employer types, and the distribution for the class of 2003 was not very different from what we see on an annual basis,” he wrote in an e-mail.

But Leipold did add that there has been a recent trend for graduates to enter smaller and smaller law firms. Usually about a quarter of graduates nationally enter the public sector, with an even higher number of women and minorities taking that path, Leipold said.

“When women and minorities do enter private practice, they are more likely to take jobs with the largest firms than are men or non-minorities as a group,” he wrote in the e-mail.

Whatever field of law they choose, Bryant does not think that Yalies will have trouble finding employment.

“[The Yale Law degree] is the most valuable legal credential in the country and our students are sought after by legal employers,” she said. “It would be very unusual to have trouble getting employment, but of course individuals are turned down for specific jobs.”

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