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Last modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005

National survey: Law schools emphasize ethical practice

Part-time students less engaged in beneficial learning activities

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Three-fourths of all law students report that their institution emphasizes to a considerable degree the ethical practice of law, and more than half say they are working harder than they thought they could to meet a faculty member's standards or expectations, according to a new national survey released today (Jan. 5).

Not everything is as promising, though. The first annual Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which was conducted by Indiana University researchers, also found that part-time students are less likely to participate in such instructive educational experiences as internships, law journal, moot court and student organizations. Additionally, more than half (56 percent) of graduating students had done no volunteer or pro bono work during law school.

The 2004 report from the LSSSE is based on information from 13,000 law students at 42 different law schools. The LSSSE study, Student Engagement in Law Schools: A First Look, gives schools an idea of how well students are learning and what they put into and get out of their law school experience.

"Engagement in learning is important because the more time and energy students devote to desired activities, the more likely they are to gain skills and competencies essential for the practice of law," said George Kuh, LSSSE director and Indiana University Bloomington Chancellor's Professor of higher education. "Law schools that intentionally craft policies and practices so that students expend more effort on productive activities arguably are preparing their students well for what they will encounter after the J.D."

Legal educators have expressed concern about academic disengagement of law students, especially third-year students. Some observers believe today's law students lack a strong ethical foundation and a willingness to meet pro bono obligations. Legal practitioners worry about what they see as a growing separation between what law schools emphasize and the knowledge, skills and competencies the legal profession requires to meet the demands of a society that relies increasingly on legal remedies to resolve complex matters.

The LSSSE is designed to help law schools assess whether students are engaged in educationally purposeful activities. The survey results provide comparative standards for determining how effectively law schools are contributing to learning. Several key areas of educational performance are measured: academic and intellectual experiences, student satisfaction, quality of relationships, student time usage, enriching educational experiences, law school environment and educational and personal growth.

Other key findings from the 2004 report are:

  • More than half (56 percent) of students "often" or "very often" have serious conversations with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Two-thirds of students spend more than 20 hours per week preparing for class.
  • Almost all (96 percent) J.D. students at least occasionally ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions.
  • About 63 percent of students say their law school gives little emphasis to providing the support needed for a successful employment search; half are "unsatisfied" or "very unsatisfied" with their school's job search help and career counseling.
  • Almost one-third (32 percent) of J.D. students never discuss ideas or readings from their classes with faculty members outside of class.
  • About 90 percent of part-time students work for pay, and three-quarters spend more than 30 hours per week in their jobs.
  • About one-fifth of students say they "never" get prompt oral or written feedback from faculty members.
  • More than 80 percent of students are satisfied with their overall experience and said they would attend the same law school.

Bryant Garth, senior research fellow at the American Bar Foundation, said, "LSSSE provides a unique opportunity to explore systematically what is achieved -- and what can be achieved -- in traditional and non-traditional areas of the curriculum. Student responses to the kinds of questions LSSSE asks will be invaluable in helping law schools improve the learning experiences of their students."

Kuh said, "Law schools can do more to help students succeed in law school by clearly marking paths that students should take to get involved in activities that matter to them and their learning."

The LSSSE 2004 Report is co-sponsored by the Association of American Law Schools and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Supported by institutional participation fees, LSSSE is patterned after the widely used National Survey of Student Engagement, which annually collects information about the quality of the undergraduate experience at more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide.

The LSSSE 2004 Report, Student Engagement in Law Schools: A First Look, is available in PDF format on LSSSE's Web site ( or may be obtained for $10 from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, School of Education, 1900 E. 10th St., Eigenmann Hall Suite 419, Bloomington IN 47406-7512.