Wednesday, October 17, 2018
John Bliss (Harvard), From Idealists to Hired Guns? An Empirical Analysis of "Public Interest Drift" in Law School, 51 UC Davis L. Rev. 1973 (2018):
Recent commentaries on American legal education have questioned whether law students are prepared to seek out satisfying, publicregarding, and financially viable careers in a changing profession. To these debates, this Article offers an empirical perspective on how students approach job-path decisions during law school. I address this issue through a five-year multi-method study of a subset of the law student population — elite-school students who state preferences for jobs in the public-interest sector at the beginning of law school but by their second year decide to pursue positions in large private law firms. A widely circulated hypothesis in popular and academic discourses suggests that implicit lessons of the first-year curriculum steer these students away from public-interest career goals, inducing a widespread “public interest drift.” However, skeptical commentators have speculated that the survey findings showing this drift phenomenon may be inaccurate and exaggerated. This Article responds to the skeptical position by empirically exploring the descriptive limits of the drift effect through a qualitative study of students’ experiences.
My analysis suggests a revised socialization timeline, wherein many students entered law school with genuine but vague commitments to public-interest careers. While the first-year experience has profound documented effects on law students, this study suggests that one of those effects does not appear to be to dramatically alter these job preferences. At the end of the first-year summer, these students generally characterized the decision to apply to large firms as risk-averse, uninformed, and tentative. Respondents’ emerging conceptions of professional identity were substantially shaped by the law-firm interview process as they re-narrated their paths into the profession. I explore these dynamics through the lens of sociological theory on identity work and social psychological theory on cognitive dissonance. Although this analysis emphasizes forces that are exogenous to the law school classroom, one promising policy recommendation that follows from these findings is to give first-year students more information about legal careers and more opportunities to reflect on professional identity. I argue that developing such curriculum may lead to better sorting of law graduates into practice settings where they are more likely to be satisfied and effective. Furthermore, this recommendation aims to encourage students who begin their careers in private law firms to expand their definitions of public interest to include the civic and ethical contributions of law-firm practice.