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Study finds law students shifted employment expecations in 2009

Findings from a national study released Jan. 6, 2010, indicate that the percentage of law students expecting to work in private law firms dropped in 2009, from 58 percent to 50 percent. In another sign of the impact of the recent recession, more students anticipate seeking public interest jobs -- now about 33 percent compared to 29 percent in 2008.

As with other sectors of the economy, law students seem to be revising career expectations to realistically respond to the current professional landscape.

On a related note, more students in 2009 said that their legal education had substantially strengthened their commitment to serving the public good and positively affected their capacity to perform with integrity in personal and professional settings. Apparently, the uncertainty in the external environment has prompted law students to reflect in meaningful ways on the importance of practicing law consistent with the highest ethical standards.

Law Student

Photo by Charlie Westerman

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The report from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) is based on information from more than 26,000 law students at 82 law schools. The LSSSE study, titled Student Engagement in Law Schools: Enhancing Student Learning, gives law schools an idea of how well students are learning, along with what students put into and get out of their law school experience.

The survey is produced by the Center for Postsecondary Research at the Indiana University School of Education. Lauren K. Robel, dean and Val Nolan Professor at the IU Maurer School of Law-Bloomington, serves on the LSSSE Advisory Board. William D. Henderson, associate professor in the Maurer School, is LSSSE faculty associate.

George Kuh, IU professor and LSSSE director, says that "what law students do outside of the classroom also matters, in that those who participate in co-curricular activities such as student bar association, tenant assistance or protective order projects were more satisfied with their experience and gained more overall from their studies."

According to Rachel Moran, the Robert D. and Leslie-Kay Raven Professor at Berkeley Law School and president of the Association of American Law Schools, "The contributions of co-curricular activities suggest that there is a real synergy, rather than a trade-off or conflict, between the academic and social aspects of law school."

The annual survey results provide information that law schools can use to reflect on how well they are contributing to student learning, understand their performance in the context of other law schools, and identify policies and practices that may need attention to improve the quality of legal training. Key areas measured by the survey are intellectual experiences, student time usage, student satisfaction, enriching law school experiences, the climate for learning, and selected dimensions of educational, personal and professional development.

Other key findings from the 2009 report include:

  • While faculty feedback is linked to self-reported student gains in a variety of areas, nearly one-fifth of all law students report that they never receive prompt feedback from their instructors on their academic performance.
  • Only about half of all law students frequently receive feedback from their professors that is helpful to their academic development.
  • One in 10 law students say they never receive feedback from professors that stimulates their interest in the study or practice of law.
  • Male students are more likely than female students to receive oral feedback from professors, both during class and outside of class.
  • More than one-third (44 percent) of third-year students expect to owe more than $100,000 in law school loans upon graduation.
  • Level of law school debt has no effect on whether third-year students will look for work in private law firms or various public interest settings.
  • Students who are not involved in co-curricular activities study less than their peers and more frequently come to class unprepared.
  • More than one-third of all law students say that their legal education places little emphasis on acting with integrity in personal and professional settings.

According to William H. Sullivan, senior scholar at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "LSSSE has beome a valuable resource for legal education precisely because it provides the kind of feedback that law schools need in order to enhance the achievement of their core educational mission. LSSSE provides law schools with revealing and otherwise unobtainable data about their performance."

LSSSE is co-sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Copies of the LSSSE 2009 annual survey results are available for download from or for purchase in print format.