February 25, 2020

Future in Law? A Profile of Graduating College Seniors Interested in Legal Education and Careers

Research and Data
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.

Executive Summary

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. Utilizing 15 years of data from the College Senior Survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, our study offers insight about the traits of college seniors aspiring to a law degree and/or career, when their interest in law develops, and the extent to which their interest in law changes during college.

Overall, the report makes the following key observations:

  1. As reflected by the decline in law school applicants, the proportion of graduating seniors reporting an interest in law has decreased. Between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of seniors reporting law as their highest planned degree fell from 10 percent to six percent, and the percentage reporting law as their probable career fell from six to about three percent. By contrast, the percentage of graduating seniors reporting the bachelor’s as their highest planned degree has increased in recent years, suggesting that the recent decline in law school applicants may mirror a broader decline in graduate and professional degree aspirations among recent college graduates.
  2. Some seniors plan to pursue a law degree, but not a legal career. The number and proportion of seniors aspiring to attain a law degree consistently exceed those of seniors aspiring to a career as an attorney or judge, indicating that some graduating seniors view the J.D. as an asset for other occupations. 
  3. College seniors who report interest in pursuing a law degree or career report higher levels of civic, social and political engagement compared to seniors with other postbaccalaureate plans. Seniors who express interest in law school have higher levels of civic engagement, civic awareness and social agency compared to those with other degree intentions. Similarly, seniors planning for a law career more often rate influencing the political structure and working for social change as very important or essential goals compared to seniors with other career aspirations.
  4. Seniors planning to attend law school tend to have higher self-assessments of their writing, public speaking and leadership skills than seniors with other interests. However, a lower percentage rate their mathematical ability as above average compared to seniors with other degree aspirations.
  5. A majority of seniors who express interest in law appear to develop their interest during college. Of the seniors who reported an interest in law and also completed HERI’s freshman survey, most reported a different career or advanced degree aspiration in their first year of college. The percentage of law-interested seniors who reported a different interest as freshmen fluctuated around 50 percent between 2004 and 2016, and most recently increased to 59 percent in 2017.
  6. An increasing majority of seniors who initially report an interest in law as freshmen report a different interest on the senior survey. In the early 2000s, roughly 44 percent of seniors who began college with an interest in law later reported a different career or advanced degree intent in their final year of college. In recent years, that percentage has fluctuated around 58 percent.
  7. Compared to those who lose interest in law, graduating seniors who develop an interest in law during college more often rate their public speaking and writing skills higher their senior year compared to their freshman year. They also ascribe greater importance to the opportunity to influence the political structure in their final college year compared to their first. Collectively, these findings suggest the formation of interest in law is accompanied by an increase in skills and interests that align with legal education and careers. Identifying these and other drivers of interest in law can help law schools better articulate and emphasize their value among prospective students—both undergraduates and postgraduates alike.
  8. Prospective law students’ demonstrable interest in civic, political, and social affairs underscores the need to improve law school affordability for students who desire to work in public service. As found in the Before the JD study, nearly half of undergraduates considering law school do so because they view the J.D. as a pathway to a career in politics, government, or public service. Considering the critical role law schools and graduates play in our democracy, it is essential that legal education stakeholders implement and advocate for programs that will enable law students to pursue and attain their financial, civic, and career goals.