AccessLex Research Priorities
AccessLex Institute collects and analyzes data, commissions external experts and collaborates with other organizations to publish and report on the issues most relevant to our research priorities.
AccessLex Institute's interest in this area begins with the proposition that there is substantial value in the diversity of students, broadly defined, with respect to the composition of law school classes.
In recent years, law schools have made some progress in broadening their access to demographic groups traditionally underrepresented in legal education. For example, according to American Bar Association data, only 1 in 5 J.D. recipients were non-white in 2000; by 2011, that number had improved to 1 in 4. However, legal education lags behind other graduate and professional programs in terms of racial and ethnic diversity.
The central focus of our current research activities on access and diversity include understanding the barriers that impede improved access to law school for various underrepresented groups and identifying the characteristics of programs and policies that substantially address those barriers.
Data demonstrating the rapid increase of the cost of higher education generally over the past 20 years is well known—legal education is no different. According to data from the American Bar Association, in 2013, the average tuition at public and private law schools was $37,000 and $42,000, respectively. Despite considerable tuition discounting by many law schools, students (in the aggregate) continue to graduate with high levels of debt, both nominally and relative to income opportunities. Data from the National Center of Education Statistics reveal that in 2011-12, about 86 percent of law school students graduated with student loan debt with a median amount borrowed for both their undergraduate and graduate studies of $116,500 at public institutions and $144,000 at private, nonprofit law schools.
Traditionally, whatever the level of affordability upon graduation, the relationship between debt levels and the labor market for law graduates was sufficient that most did not question affordability. However, changes in the broader U.S. economy and the legal services market have upset legal hiring patterns and career paths. So legal education is now in the position where the price to students is increasing while the income opportunities are decreasing—a negative trend for students and law schools alike.
Our current research activities in this area include defining affordability in the context of today’s legal education and public policy environment and identifying actionable strategies for law schools and public policies to increase affordability.
As legal education has become a more costly and more leveraged endeavor with a less certain economic return, its value has been questioned as never before by students, graduates, policymakers and other stakeholders. This inquiry has laid bare the lack of disaggregated data and other facts to support the argument that legal education remains a valuable asset to its recipients and society at large.
While related to the concept of affordability, value in this context is more than the sum of the additional economic returns generated as a result of obtaining a legal education. To properly measure and analyze value, we must first define value in a manner that accounts for both quantitative and qualitative outcomes.
Value, broadly defined, should be a core driver of decisions relating to legal education. Our current research activities in this area focus on understanding the value of legal education using a variety of approaches to measuring outcomes.
NEW! Future in Law? A Profile of Graduating College Seniors Interested in Legal Education and Careers
The recent decline in law school applicants is well-documented. Despite a slight increase in 2018, the number of law school applicants remains substantially lower than levels observed prior to 2011. This decrease in the demand for legal education presents an opportunity to better understand the pathway to law school and the formation of interest in pursuing a law degree or career.
The American Association of Law Schools pioneered inquiry in this area with their groundbreaking study, Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School, which surveyed undergraduates from 25 four-year institutions and first-year law students from 44 law schools, to learn more about what attracts and deters undergraduate interest in legal education and other advanced degrees. This report aims to build on this work by analyzing a broader dataset of undergraduate students—specifically, college seniors—to further describe the characteristics, academic behaviors, goals and career path considerations of those who report an interest in law compared to those who have other career and degree aspirations. Read More
Through our various grant programs, AccessLex Institute provides funding for research that is focused on our core research priorities of access, affordability and value of legal education; and, that complements our research and data collection activities.