Goofing Off in Law School

Survey finds serious slippage in student levels of academic engagement in third year.
January 3, 2006

Senior slump is well known to high school teachers, who note that students' preparedness and work ethic seem to disappear about the time that college applications get turned in.

Perhaps it's because the students who end up in law schools were studying hard in their academic careers up until then, but a new survey suggests a serious third-year slump afflicts them as they are about to finish their law degrees. By a number of measures, it appears that the longer students are in law school, the less likely they are to be working hard.

The data are from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which is being released today as the Association of American Law Schools kicks off its annual meeting. The survey -- like similar national studies of undergraduates at four-year colleges and at community colleges -- asks a series of questions on student behavior with regard to academic and non-academic life. The Indiana Center for Postsecondary Research, which pioneered the student engagement surveys, conducted the law school study.

Its findings with regard to law students' activities show a steady deterioration during the traditional three years of law school, although third-year students are slightly more likely to participate in class.

Activities and Behaviors Reported by Full-Time Law Students

Activity First-Year Students Second-Year Students Third-Year Students
Came to class with readings and assignments completed 93% 84% 74%
Worked on paper requiring integration of multiple sources 80% 66% 71%
Prepared two or more drafts of paper before turning it in 69% 56% 55%
Worked harder than necessary to meet professor's expectations 61% 49% 46%
Had serious talk with students with different political, religious or social views 70% 68% 65%
Had serious talk with students of different race and ethnicity 61% 59% 58%
Contributed to class discussions 46% 48% 51%

Given the results, it's probably not surprising that law students also report a decline in the hours they spend studying, as they continue on in law school. First-year, full-time students report spending an average of 21 hours a week reading for class and 10 hours a week engaged in other forms of study. For third-year students, the averages are 13 hours a week for reading and 8 hours for other studying.

In an introductory essay to the study, Alison Grey Anderson, a professor of law emerita at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that the data on the third year of law school "tend to confirm the criticism that the third year is not used effectively."

Among the other findings in the survey:

  • Students who reported having more experience with diversity in law school also reported greater overall satisfaction with their law school experience.
  • About one in six students reported never receiving prompt oral or written feedback from faculty members.
  • Nine out of ten students incur debt in law school, and of those students, the average debt projected upon graduation is $77,000.


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