Why Undergraduates Blindly Follow the Law School Dream
For many undergraduates, law school represents the path to an ideal future. Some tout noble social justice causes as their reason for applying to law school while others seek a comfortable lifestyle and stable income, proving that the American dream is still very much alive. With these bright possibilities in mind, undergraduates flock to the gateway of promised fortune and prestige in droves despite the ever-shrinking number of jobs in the legal profession. According to statistics published by the ABA, law school enrollment has been rising steadily over the past few years with a record 51,646 students signing up for the law school dream in the 2009-2010 academic year.[i] In order to keep up with this high demand, new law schools are opening their doors to prospective students at an astonishing rate: since 2005, twelve new accredited institutions are open and eager for business.[ii] But as attractive biglaw jobs - or any jobs that require a JD - become increasingly scarce, recent graduates are scrambling to pay off their massive student loans, and nearly 800 members of the Class of 2010 have resorted to working "other non-professional jobs" which include less than glamorous careers bussing tables at the Cheesecake Factory or filing transcripts at their alma mater's admissions office.[iii][iv]
Despite these rather dismal prospects, a recent survey conducted by students at Stanford University and Stanford Law School suggests that current undergraduates remain generally optimistic about their careers after graduating from law school.[v] A comparison of the collected data reveals three key trends:
This widespread misinformation about law school and career prospects in the legal field should be a strong wake-up call for university career centers and advising centers across the country. Instead of focusing on how to get students admitted, advisors should provide the information necessary to address the common undergraduate misconceptions about law school. Advisors should provide a breakdown of law school costs and possible payment options and explain that law school grants and scholarships are not as widely available as they are for undergraduate programs. Advisors should also inform undergraduates that law school debt is a significant determinant of post-graduate career plans and show how few law students actually go into the public interest sector. Only when an undergraduate still wishes to attend law school after receiving all this information should pre-law advisors proceed with the traditional advising process that maximizes a student's chances of gaining admission into the top law schools.
Regret is a recurring theme in the law student survey. "I now question whether I made the right decision," says a 1L while a 3L admits that she "should have talked to more people about what to expect." Much of this regret stems from the lack of information available about law school prior to accepting an offer of admission. Undergraduate pre-law advisors are in the best position to address this problem and must give undergraduates the opportunity to make informed decisions about attending law school. Some people thrive in law school, but others - especially those with a demonstrated interest in working for the public good - are likely better off pursuing their passions elsewhere. Advising centers must uncover the truth about law schools and the legal profession in order to fulfill their mission of allowing students to take full advantage of their education. They must re-direct the endless stream of wide-eyed undergrads that gets sucked into the law school machine every year before it is too late.
[i] The American Bar Association, "Enrollment and Degrees Awarded: 1963-2009," "http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/legaled/statistics/charts/stats_1.authcheckdam.pdf
[iii] The Association for Legal Career Professionals, "Class of 2010 Graduates Faced Worst Job Market Since Mid-1990s," http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2010SelectedFindings.pdf
[iv] Based on self-reported data, actual number likely higher.
[v] Survey was distributed to undergraduates interested in attending law school and current law students. The undergraduate survey received 78 responses from students attending 38 different schools while the law student survey received 107 responses from students attending 42 different law schools. Survey sample was not randomized, and results are nongenerizable.
[vi] The American Bar Association, "Average Amount Borrowed for Law School: 2001-2009," http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/legaled/statistics/charts/stats_20.authcheckdam.pdf
[vii] The Association for Legal Career Professionals, "Class of 2010 Graduates Faced Worst Job Market Since Mid-1990s," http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2010SelectedFindings.pdf
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.
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