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February 04, 2023

Law school class of 2000: Where are they now?

The American Bar Foundation, an independent nonprofit research group, provided a sneak preview at the 2023 American Bar Association Midyear Meeting of its latest iteration of an ambitious project capturing the career paths of the law school licensing class of 2000.

The “After the JD” project gathers systematic, detailed data regarding careers and experiences of a national cross-section of about 5,400 law graduates who were admitted to the bar in 2000. By periodically tracking their career outcomes, the study provides a unique glimpse into the changing nature of the legal profession during much of the past two decades.

As outlined by ABF Director Emeritus Robert Nelson, now a Northwestern University sociology professor, the latest findings cover 2019 research and follows similar announcements for “waves” in 2003, 2007 and 2012. “This is a uniquely comprehensive study of lawyers’ careers or of any occupation,” Nelson said at the Feb. 3 program, “The Making of Lawyers’ Careers: Inequity and Opportunity in the American Legal Profession.”

The full study is scheduled to be released in September and will show that after two decades in law the tracked attorneys experience deep divisions by client type and practice setting, and that women and lawyers of color continue to report barriers to equal opportunity, the ABF said in its materials.

Bryant Garth, ABF interim director, explained that in some ways the base of the ongoing initiative was a 1982 project focusing on lawyers working within Chicago’s city limits that was widely accepted as representative of the profession. That study’s primary conclusion was that a “fundamental distinction” divided lawyers into “two hemispheres,” with one group represented by large corporations, such as firms, corporations and government, and the other of lawyers who worked in small firms and businesses.

The Chicago-lawyer study determined that the division between these two was so sharp that most “lawyers reside exclusively in one hemisphere or the other and seldom, if ever, cross the equator.” The ongoing study, conducted by an eight-member research team, has found that the hemispheric division has not change significantly in 40 years.

Researcher Ronit Dinovitze, ABF faculty fellow and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, outlined some of the current specific findings, which overall found that a high percentage of tracked lawyers remained generally satisfied with their careers. “People are making sense of their lives and their careers over time,” she said.

The findings showed both similarities and changes from the 1982 Chicago report as well as from ABF findings in previous years. Some were:

  • Hierarchical structures within law firms and the profession remain. Where an attorney went to law school, for example, still makes a difference in pay as well as lateral moves, both in law and business. The study found that Top 10 law graduates fare better in this regard than graduates from a Tier IV law school, generally considered in the bottom quarter of a national magazine’s ranking.
  • In previous generations, Big Law associates often viewed it a failure if they did not make partner within a specified time period. Now, this “failure” is generally viewed as an opportunity to restart careers in a different professional path. In addition, where you previously worked has gained more importance in the profession; experience with so-called skyscraper law firms opens more professional opportunities.
  • Those who graduated from the Tier IV law school were most “moderately or extremely” satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer of any group than lawyers from schools regarded in other quartiles.
  • While law firms have put more emphasis with successful results on recruiting larger pools of women and ethnically diverse new lawyers, that value mostly extends to entry-level positions. The latest study will suggest that reform in the make-up of the profession is still lacking.