January 6, 2012
Despite Dismal Job Market, Many Law Students Forgo Key Opportunities on Campus
By Libby Sander
Today's law graduates face a challenging job market and roiling global economy, but findings from a survey of more than 33,000 J.D. students suggest that they're not doing all they could to burnish their skills.
"Many law students still seem to think of law school as an educational hurdle to surmount rather than as preparation for professional life," Thomas D. Morgan, a professor at George Washington University Law School, wrote in a foreword to a report on the 2011 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, released on Friday by Indiana University at Bloomington's Center for Postsecondary Research. "The data suggest that students may not be taking full advantage of the opportunities law school affords them to prepare for the world they are about to enter."
That world is less eager for new lawyers, he said. And the current legal landscape is shaped by three powerful forces that recent graduates would be wise to heed: a competitive job market that rewards specialists, not generalists; a shift toward collaborative work, with fellow lawyers and other experts; and a global outlook that increasingly demands international contacts and at least some knowledge of foreign law.
Yet more than a quarter of respondents to the survey said they had never sought out a mentor—a professor or a practicing lawyer—who could discuss potential practice concentrations. Fewer than one-third said they worked frequently with other students on class projects, says the report, "Navigating Law School: Paths in Legal Education."
Responses on international contacts were "particularly troubling," Mr. Morgan noted.
As part of the most recent annual survey, researchers focused on a smaller group—7,500 American J.D. students at 22 law schools—to examine their awareness of international students pursuing graduate law degrees on their campuses. The Americans indicated that their interaction with the international students was very limited, in both social and academic settings. Less than 6 percent of the American respondents, for instance, reported interacting frequently with the international students in informal study activities. (The percentage of students reporting social interactions was higher.)
That limited contact is a missed opportunity for both groups, Mr. Morgan said.
The report's authors, meanwhile, recommended that law schools reconsider how they prepare students to work in a global economy. "If law schools want their students to learn in a more internationally diverse environment," the report states, "they must affirmatively structure the law-school experience to encourage interaction."
This year's survey also delved into alternative paths some law students take toward earning their degree: attending part time or transferring to a different school. Approximately 14 percent of respondents were part-time students; roughly 3 percent had begun their legal education at a different institution and transferred.
When it came to the amount of time spent studying and preparing for class, both groups reported experiences very similar to those of full-time law students who had attended only one school. In other areas, there were exceptions: Part-time students, for instance, were less likely than their full-time peers to take advantage of career-counseling services, and participated less frequently in experiential learning.