Dean's Desk: Surveys give insight on graduates’ careers

October 7, 2015

dean-newton-notre-dameLately I have been spending some fruitful hours reviewing a treasure trove of data collected by a 12-year-long longitudinal study of law graduates who passed the bar in the year 2000. The survey results are available in a publication called “After the JD.” I commend it to your attention.

A joint research project of NALP, the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation, one of the striking conclusions of the study is that most attorneys who passed the bar in 2000 remain satisfied with their decision to go to law school. They survived the economic downturn of 2008 better than one might have expected and believe their legal education generated a good return on their investment.

Sometimes the data affirms assumptions. Other times it doesn’t. For example, contrary to the settled expectations of many, the career satisfaction reported by the class of 2000 was not necessarily tied to income. In fact, “After the JD” notes that after 12 years on the job, the very highest levels of satisfaction in its study were reported by those working in public interest positions – 87.6 percent of these lawyers report being satisfied with their decision to become lawyers. Legal services/public defender attorneys come in a close second, with 86.1 percent. Moreover, higher percentages of solo and small-firm practitioners report being satisfied with their careers (75 percent and 76.9 percent, respectively) than do their usually higher-paid colleagues in firms of 100-250 lawyers (64.8 percent of these lawyers report moderate to high satisfaction). The percentage of attorneys in elite and high-paying super firms of 251-plus lawyers who report satisfaction is high (80.4 percent), but not as high as the percentage of satisfied in-house attorneys working for businesses (83.0 percent).

Another belief common among law students is that the first job out of law school is crucial and often career-determinative. The hard data suggests otherwise. By the third year after graduation fully one-third of all new lawyers will have already changed jobs at least once. Nearly two-thirds will have changed jobs at least once by the seven-year mark. Thus, while the first job out of law school is surely an important one, it does not appear to be everything.

The survey highlights a host of other issues that warrant further analysis, most notably the enduring income and partnership gap still experienced by women and minority lawyers. The report should not be read as addressing current concerns about law school debt either. While “After the JD” concluded that overall the class of 2000 was managing its debt well and that there was very little evidence of buyer’s remorse connected with debt levels, it must be kept in mind that after 12 years these respondents had established their careers and hence may not be representative of more recent law graduates who are carrying higher debt loads as they seek to launch their careers.

Over the course of the project, a significant number of survey respondents (some 19 percent overall) left the practice of law. Whereas 76.1 percent of all respondents report being satisfied with their decision to go to law school, only a smaller majority (63.4 percent) of those who are now working in non-lawyer jobs report being satisfied with their decision.

The “After the JD” project conducted surveys in three waves. First, a nationally representative cohort of 8,225 new lawyers was surveyed 3 years after passing the bar. The 4,538 attorneys who responded to that initial survey were contacted again at about 7 years into their careers. Five years later, 2,862 respondents completed a third survey after having spent 12 years in their legal careers. The study maintained a better than 50 percent response rate in each of the three waves, and the final 2,862 respondents in Wave 3 represent about 35 percent of the 8,225 lawyers in the initial sample.

While I am not a statistician, the 35 percent response rate is statistically meaningful. The “After the JD” researchers nevertheless went a step further, however, and actively worked to identify through other available public sources whether the Wave 3 non-respondents differed from the respondents in terms of employment status, gender or race. This follow-up research found that there was no response bias and that the Wave 3 respondents adequately represented the larger nationally representative population that was surveyed at Wave 1.

Having been successfully mined, this rich and detailed data can now be sliced, diced, compared and contrasted by gender, ethnicity, type of employment, and stage of career, among other things. Once fully deciphered by skilled statistical analysts, all of this data can play an important role in informing law school administrators and other policy makers of the facts on the ground.

Having been in on the ground floor of this study in a very modest way and (full disclosure) currently serving as the NALP Foundation chair, I am very pleased to see the research team’s 13 years of work come to fruition. While more than 200 published articles already reference “After the JD,” the study is so rich that its implications will take years to sort out, study and absorb.

Moreover, the surveys will not stop with the class of 2000. The NALP Foundation has already launched a follow-up project that conducts an annual survey of attorneys who are three years out from their graduation. The findings are then made available to participating law schools the following year. Hence my copy of the new “2015 Law School Alumni Employment and Satisfaction Study” covers the class of 2011, next year’s survey will report on the class of 2012, and so on.  Helpfully, the foundation also includes a report that is specific to the individual law school in addition to a report that aggregates data from all of the participating schools. As a result, the school-specific report to Notre Dame includes the Class of 2011’s narrative responses to the question: “Briefly describe how your law school has played a part in helping you achieve your career goals.” Together with the hard data, this qualitative data is helping to guide our Career Development Office. The NALP Foundation also hopes to launch a new longitudinal study, but to do so will require the kind of major support from outside foundations that was present for the original “After the JD” study.

With greater understanding comes greater power to make the right decisions in a changing world, and I am confident that with both the “After the JD” project and 3-year post-grad surveys at hand my fellow deans and I can become better informed than ever before about the real-life experiences and candid feedback of the graduates who take our schools’ J.D. degrees into the marketplace every year.•

Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


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