Even with 91,000 practicing attorneys in the five boroughs last year, a new wave of lawyers is hitting the city, as a record number of law school students are taking and passing the state bar, according to data provided by the New York State Board of Law Examiners.
In July, 10,907 students sat for the bar — an increase of more than 20% since 2000 — and a record 70.6% of them passed the bar.
While many associates who graduated law school in 2006 are earning bonuses at the city's most prestigious law firms, boosting salaries to an average of $205,000 a year, recruiters said the competition for the top talent belies that the vast majority of lawyers in New York are not guaranteed lucrative employment after law school.
"There is a glut of attorneys in New York, and there always will be," the president of Hanover Legal Personnel Services, Jack Zaremski, said in an interview. The total number of lawyers in America is now about 1.14 million, according to the American Bar Association, and more than one in 10 live and work in New York State.
"There isn't going to be a decrease in demand for the very best talent, but that doesn't indicate much at all," Mr. Zaremski said. "There are plenty of attorneys who are happy to accept very low-level, mind-numbing positions doing whatever's at the bottom of the barrel."
The surplus of lawyers has created an entire industry that places attorneys in law firms on a temporary basis, Mr. Zaremski said. The city's top firms, meanwhile, are attracting talent from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford Law schools, whose graduates passed the bar in another state.
The growing number of students sitting for the bar also brings money into the state's coffers: Students pay $250 to take the two-day test, which is widely considered one of the hardest bar exams in the country. Their dollars go into the state's general treasury, the executive director of the law examiners board, John McAlary, said. This year, the state raked in $272,5000 administering the bar exam.
The number of law school students who took and passed the bar in New York has been increasing steadily since 2000, though there was a drop between 2002 and 2003 that many attribute to a downturn in the economy following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Cardozo-Yeshiva Law School, which this year bumped Cornell Law School out of the top three law schools in the state, according to the New York Law Journal, has about 60% of students from outside of the metropolitan region. A growing number of them are choosing to take the New York bar and practice in the city rather than return to their homes, the dean of Cardozo-Yeshiva Law School, David Rudenstine, said.
"When they come, many students intend to return home," he said. "After they're here for a few years, they decide to stay."
Experts said the years-long increase in the number of lawyers is bound to end at some point, but even a credit crunch that has led to a decline in multibillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions has not yet stanched the flow.
"Will it result in a reduction of the number of young lawyers by big firms? Probably," Mr. Rudenstine said. "That's been the pattern in the past, but if financing is down because of the mortgage crunch, bankruptcy work may be up. Law firms serve both ends."
This year, New York University Law School, Columbia Law School, and Cardozo-Yeshiva Law School had the highest bar pass rates for first-time takers, according to the New York City Bar Association.
The City University of New York School of Law scored an all-time high pass rate of 83%, according to the New York Law Journal, and the rate has risen 32% over the past five years.
Many prospective attorneys going to work for private firms already have jobs lined up through summer programs before they sit for the bar.
"I doubt law firms are significantly reducing their upcoming summer program: They probably think whatever's going on now" with the subprime mortgage crisis will be over, the chairman of Greenberg Traurig's New York office and the chairman of its global real estate practice, Robert Ivanhoe, said. "Things would have to get really bad if you hired a first year and two months later laid them off. The consequences of doing that are so bad, it's not likely."