Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), 2017 Annual Survey Results: Preferences and Expectations for Future Employment:
There has been nearly obsessive reporting on law school graduate employment and salary outcomes by NALP, the ABA, and the press, among others — particularly since the onset of the recession in 2008. But there has been far less attention paid to measuring the gap between student expectations and actual outcomes. The 2017 LSSSE Annual Report provides a good reminder that “the premise of law school is to prepare students for legal careers and other professional pursuits,” and therefore the academy must concern itself with student expectations, and the disparities between those expectations and actual employment and salary outcomes.
This new LSSSE Annual Report helpfully measures and reports on the gaps between student employment preferences and student employment expectations, documenting gaps that already exist between the two — most notably perhaps, the fact that before graduation relatively large numbers of students expect to be disappointed in their employment outcomes, or at least expect to end up working somewhere other than where they would prefer to work.
The good news is that comparing law student preferences and expectations with actual employment outcomes as measured by NALP and the ABA, there are not a lot of stark disparities — that is, in general student preferences and expectations about their employment outcomes largely match with actual measured outcomes ten months after graduation. For instance, in the LSSSE data, overall sixty-four percent of respondents indicate a preference for working in one of the private settings, and thirty-six percent prefer public service; while the NALP employment categories do not exactly align with the LSSSE employment categories, for the Class of 2017 NALP figures show that roughly sixty-eight percent of those members of the class who found work by the tenmonth mark were working in a private setting, a gap of only four percentage points based on the preferences measured by LSSSE.
We know from a variety of studies, including the landmark After the JD project from the American Bar Foundation and NALP Foundation, and from the ongoing Study of Law School Alumni Employment and Satisfaction series from NALP and the NALP Foundation, that by and large law school graduates express very high levels of satisfaction with their careers — and that this remains largely true whether students graduate in times of economic boom or economic bust, suggesting that despite some misalignment between preferences, expectations, and actual outcomes, the investment in a legal education continues to be rewarding for most law school graduates.
The bad news is that sometimes stark disparities continue to exist between groups of students and graduates by race, ethnicity, and gender. The report’s authors highlight for us that law students’ “professional preferences and expectations seemed to be influenced by factors pertaining to privilege and disadvantage.” It should not surprise any of us that work preferences and work expectations were most closely aligned for white men, and that “work in law firms was most strongly associated with white respondents, male respondents, and respondents expecting no debt.” Similarly, “Black respondents were least likely to prefer and expect to work in the same individual setting, with less than half doing so.” Black students expect to be disappointed in their job market outcomes at a higher rate than any other group. This is a finding that, while not surprising, should give us all pause.
The 2017 LSSSE Annual Report provides rich findings about law student employment preferences and expectations, and the disparities between the two — particularly the differences in those gaps by race, ethnicity, and gender — and highlights the fact that there is much work to be done in helping to shape student preferences and expectations early in law school. These data suggest, for instance, that early work with Black and Latinx students about the rewards of judicial clerkships is one place to start.