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Post-recession, more students see law career as a way to give back

Students in a classroom at the University of Idaho’s College of Law. File photo.

For today’s generation of aspiring law students, a career in the law is less about making a buck, and more about making an impact, a new study suggests.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup for the Association of American Law Schools, undergraduates considering law school report that their top reason for doing so is to pursue a career in politics, government or other public service. Students also listed having a passion for the work, looking for an opportunity to give back to society, and wanting to help advocate for social change as other top reasons for thinking about law school.

Students who responded to the survey listed higher paying jobs and the prestige of being a lawyer as being less important to them. The survey polled more than 22,000 college students and over 2,700 current law students from across the country.

Lawyers Weekly spoke to administrators from several of North Carolina’s law schools to get their perspective on the poll and to learn more about how it’s impacting their approach to teaching law.

Bianca Mack, assistant dean for admissions at the University of North Carolina School of Law said that her university has a student-led pro bono program to give students the opportunity to contribute to the public good. She said that 100 percent of students from this year’s graduating class participated at some point during their studies.

“Last year our graduating class of 2018 achieved 100 percent participation in pro bono over their three years,” Mack said. “I think that’s just something we’re uniquely situated to do and to prepare students to do, and to prepare students for an appreciation for that work.”

Many agreed that while there may have been a slight uptick in student interest in public service in recent years, it’s hard to say whether this is a new trend or not. Because the study was the first of its kind in over 50 years, there isn’t much data for comparison.

However, Dexter Smith, assistant dean of admissions at Campbell University School of Law, said that he thinks social issues are more important to law students now than ever before.

“We’ve always been a service-oriented law school,” he said. “But now, you’re actively getting that in the questions, seeing more of that with the prospective students.”

‘Students want to find a voice’

Some administrators, like Alan Woodlief, senior associate dean for admissions and administration at Elon University School of Law, said they don’t believe the altruistic interest in law school is different now than in years past

“I think students have always cited a desire to help people and make a difference as big motivating factors,” Woodlief said in an email.

But others, like Kyle Brazile, assistant dean of admissions at North Carolina Central University School of Law, said he has seen a difference, and he thinks some of the change may relate to the economic downturn during the Great Recession.

“I think a big factor is changes in the economy,” Brazile said. “You don’t see as many students trying to make $150,000 out of law school, and part of that is the jobs aren’t there anymore.”

He said that the prominence of media and politics in popular culture in recent years may play a role as well.

“Students want to find a voice, they want to contribute to those political conversations on all sides,” he said. “It’s so divisive right now, but students on all sides want to develop those skills to contribute.”

Mack said that while she doesn’t believe the study’s finding is representative of everyone who is applying to law school, politics appears to be one of many motivating factors driving students to consider law school.

“I still think there are a lot of drivers that push students to law school,” she said. “While I think that study is great, with the heightened 24-hour-news cycle and how political the climate is, I think we’re hearing more of that, which aligns with what’s going on in society.”

Truth and service

Brazile pointed to NC Central’s motto “truth and service” and the school’s history of attracting students who are interested in public service. He said that while this has always been a part of the school’s ethos, faculty have really leaned into this characteristic in recent years.

“In my opinion, we’ve doubled down, at least from the recruitment side,” he said. “To a large degree, it’s educating folks on what we’ve always done … We’ve long been top in the nation for clinical opportunities … but most recently, we’ve done a better job communicating it.”

Woodlief said Elon also offers clinics on topics like humanitarian immigration, constitutional appellate advocacy and guardian ad litem appellate advocacy, in addition to residencies and externships with non-profits, government agencies and the courts. He said all of these contribute to feeding students’ desire to do public good.

“I think the primary rationale is the opportunity to join a respected profession that has the potential to do varied, challenging and fulfilling work that makes a difference in the lives of others,” he said.

Smith said Campbell is adapting their curriculum to meet the public service needs of prospective students.

“We’re enhancing our pro bono opportunities, and we already had a good breadth of opportunities,” he said. “Our newest clinic is more community-based, and we’re looking at adding additional policy-based classes, some are more on immigration, human rights, and those types of areas. We’re staying nimble to make sure we’re addressing the wants of the practice.”

Ultimately Smith said this survey shows that students are going to law school for the right reasons.

“I do think it’s a sign of where the profession needs to be,” he said. “It’s really in line with the idea that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ It really highlights what we’ve always held here at Campbell.”

About Matthew Chaney