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Newly minted law graduates from the class of 2015 locked down fewer private practice jobs than any graduating class in nearly two decades, according to a new report from theNational Association for Law Placement.

Fewer than 34,000 2015 alums had landed jobs as of March 15 – about 10 months after the typical May graduation, leaving adequate time to study for and take the local bar exam – according to the report published Wednesday. Less than 23,000 found a job in the private sector, where wages are typically higher.

The last time employment metrics were that low was 1996, when the country held more than 25 million fewer workers than it does today.

“I was surprised to see that the private practice number was so low,” James Leipold, the association’s executive director, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Most jobs are not earmarked for new law school graduates, and graduates will continue to compete with other junior lawyers for most jobs other than entry-level associate positions at large law firms, some judicial clerkships and some government honors programs.”

The big caveat, though, is the association’s estimate that fewer than 40,000 people graduated with law degrees last year, down 8.8 percent from the class of 2014 and 14.5 percent from the year before that. There was simply a smaller pool of graduates hitting the labor market, so the number of those who found jobs was naturally held down.

Law schools graduated fewer students in 2015 than they had in years, dragging down employment totals in the process. ANDREW SOERGEL FOR USN≀ SOURCE: NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR LAW PLACEMENT

All told, the NALP study pegged the employment rate for 2015 law graduates at 86.7 percent – virtually unchanged from the year before. That’s a far cry from the 91.9 percent rate seen before the financial crisis in 2007 but is still a step up from the class of 2013’s soft 84.5 percent rate.

But America’s legal professions aren’t completely in the clear simply because employment rates have marginally rebounded. Declining law school admissions statistics have been well-documented over the last few years and are problematic for the industry regardless of where its employment rate sits. The Law School Admission Council estimated last fall that the number of admitted applicants had fallen to 42,300 – down nearly 30 percent from five years prior. The number oftotal applicants that year had fallen nearly 38 percent from where it sat in 2010.

Soft employment rates and widespread media coverage related to the idea that a so-called lawyer bubble had “popped” after the Great Recession appear to have pushed some of the brightest would-be lawyers into other professions. Less than 5,400 prospective students with statistically high LSAT scores are believed to have matriculated into law school in the fall of 2015, according to an analysis conducted last year by Jerry Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. That’s down markedly from more than 9,400 high-scoring test takers in 2010.

In an attempt to keep enrollment numbers up, there’s some evidence that certain law schools have begun lowering their admissions standards, though this has yet to translate into a meaningful rebound in law school applications.

“Certainly, the members of the smaller graduating classes expected over the next few years will face somewhat less competition amongst themselves for the jobs that do exist,” Leipold said. “But the ongoing changes facing the industry make it all but certain that the job market will continue to change for the new law school graduates in the years ahead.”

Still, law graduates’ overall median salary ballooned to $64,800 last year, up from the $63,000 collected by the class of 2014. For those who landed gigs at private firms, starting salaries climbed to $100,000 from $95,000. And those statistics don’t include the recent trend toward entry-level mega-salaries offered by big-name law firms like Cravath, which in June announced plans to raise starting pay to $180,000.

The NALP indicated that “means and medians will jump again” in its report for the class of 2016, thanks in large part to this “recent run-up of starting salaries.” And considering that $180,000 entry-level pay sits at more than 3.7 times the median annual wages paid to all U.S. workers in 2015, opportunities for qualified candidates hailing from top law firms still look pretty good.

For everyone else, though, employment prospects are a little less clear.

“The overall jobs profile for the class of 2015 has improved considerably from that for the class of 2011 – the class that faced the worst overall post-recession job market,” Leipold said. “Nonetheless, in this flat jobs market, there is no evidence that the entry-level legal job market will continue to improve, or at least there can be little confidence that it will return to what it was before the recession.”

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