Law School Enrollment Up, Students Committed to Making Impact (Corrected)

Sept. 20, 2018, 4:54 PMUpdated: Sept. 20, 2018, 9:36 PM

When students began flocking back to law school after enrollment dropped precipitously starting in 2010, no one could explain why it regained its allure.

So the Association of American Law Schools asked nearly 25,000 undergraduates and first-year law students about their reasons.

Along with Gallup, the association undertook a national survey that found students largely are choosing law school for public-spirited reasons, including viewing the three-year professional degree as a pathway to a career in public service, politics or government.

Some 44 percent of respondents said a law degree was a career path, and a similar percentage said they chose to pursue one because of their strong interest in public interest work.

Slightly lower figures—35 and 32 percent, respectively—said their top reasons were to give back to society and to advocate for social change.

That would include George Washington University Law School first-year student Jacqueline Fisher, 22, of Pleasantville, N.Y., who opted for law school right after graduating with a liberal arts degree.

“I had an undergraduate internship with a refugee resettlement program last year,” she said. “And now that I’ve started law school, I’ve discovered that there are a lot of public service areas that I’m interested in.”

Law student motivations have not been examined for nearly a half-century, according to Judith Areen, executive director of AALS.

“Things have changed since then and we needed to know more about what motivates and interests students,” she said.

The survey results, however, didn’t paint a completely rosy picture for law schools. Only 15 percent of undergraduates said they were considering pursuing a juris doctorate compared to 63 percent who said they were considering studying for a more general graduate degree.

The top choice was a PhD, and about a fourth were weighing a graduate business degree, or an MBA.

Family, according to survey results, has a great influence on choosing law as a career. Of the undergraduates considering law school, 55 percent said that they have at least one parent with an advanced degree. The survey did not specify whether it was a law degree.

If advanced education is the significant influence it appears to be, that is not necessarily good news for the legal profession. According to the study, the overall pool of advanced degree holders in relatively small; only 12 percent of individuals between the ages of 45 and 65, the likeliest ages to be a parent of college-age students, have an advanced degree.

An educated parent can have a powerful effect, attests Jeremy Coler, 29, another G.W. first-year law student. He enrolled after dropping out of college to serve a six-year stint in the Air Force Reserves. He is the first in his family to pursue a law degree, which he sees as “opening many doors to careers, but closing none.”

His education choices had strong support from his parents, of Youngstown, Ohio. His father, a teacher with a master’s in education, “made me understand the importance of education and equipping myself with ways to fix problems and make things better.”

To attract students like Coler, who are part of a broader cross-section of college graduates, the AALS report warns, will require law schools to make a more “deliberate effort to level the playing field for qualified applicants, particularly if they are the first generation of their family to graduate from college.”

Those who do choose law school appear, according to survey findings, to be committed long term to the legal profession. Some 55 percent of law students responding said they first considered earning a law degree even before they reached college.

And about one-third – more women than men – were younger than high school age when they first set their sights on a legal career. And, the report found, black law students were even more likely to consider a law career even before reaching high school.

((Corrects name of Association of American Law Schools in snapshot))

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom P. Taylor at ttaylor@bloomberglaw.com

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