Being Active (Or Not) in Law School

January 3, 2008

Much has been made about the march of Millennial students to college. But what about their later years in higher education? According to an annual survey of law school students, they are still collaborating, socializing and signing up for activities (resume boosters and otherwise).

The 2007 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, out today as the Association of American Law Schools kicks off its annual meeting in New York, is based on information from more than 27,000 students at 79 law schools. Like similar national studies of undergraduates at four-year colleges and community colleges, the survey asks a range of questions about student behavior as it relates to both academic and non-academic life. The Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, which is behind the student engagement surveys, also released the law school study.

Students in law school who are over the age of 27 reported spending more time preparing for class and contributing to classroom discussions than did their younger counterparts, who are often considered to be part of the Millennial generation.

Compared to other students in their first year of law school, younger students were more likely to work with peers on assignments outside of class and spend time socializing. They also reported taking part more frequently in co-curricular activities than so-called "nontraditional" students who attend part-time or in the evening, transferred in, or are aged 30 and above.

"We hear a lot about younger students who are more collaborative, into working with their peers, and our data support that," said Lindsay Watkins, project manager for the report. "Older students may be more serious in terms of academic preparation."

And they're also more likely to stand by their choice of where to attend. Of third-year students, 42 percent in the 35-and-above category said they would "definitely" go to the same school if asked to go through the selection process again, compared to only 28 percent of students who are 27 or younger.

Watkins said that while the survey shows clear differences between age groups, it doesn't necessarily point to a generational shift, as surveys dating to 2004 have showed similar trends.

Percent of Full-Time, First-Year Students Who Spend More than 10 Hours a Week on Selected Activities By Age

Activities Age 27 and below 28-35 35+
Reading assigned materials   89% 90% 93%
Preparing for class other than reading 33% 36% 44%
Working for pay in a law-related job 3% 3% 4%
Working for pay in a nonlegal job 5% 6% 8%
Socializing/Relaxing   29% 23% 12%

The report also categorizes students by the size of their institution, whether it's private or public and whether it is considered "selective."

Those surveyed at law schools with enrollments under 500 were more likely than their peers at larger institutions to work collaboratively outside of class, take part in class discussions and interact more frequently with faculty members. However, students at the larger schools were generally more likely to participate in volunteer or pro bono activities, and more likely as third-year students to say they were satisfied with financial counseling and financial aid advising.

Percent of Full-Time, Third-Year Students who "Often" or "Very Often" Participate in Select Activities By School Enrollment Size

Activities       Fewer than 500 students 500-900 students More than 900 students
Clinical internship or field experience 74% 74% 69%
Volunteer or pro bono work   49% 62% 60%
Study abroad     11% 15% 15%
Law journal member     31% 37% 36%
Moot court team     22% 26% 17%
Law student organization member 75% 72% 67%

Students who attended private institutions were more likely than their counterparts to say they "worked harder than they thought they could" to meet the expectations of their instructors. They also were more likely to agree that their school provided the amount of academic support needed to succeed. But respondents from public law schools reported a higher likelihood of choosing the same law school again and participating in law school activities and organizations.

Third-year law students at the most selective institutions, as determined by the LSAT percentile range admissions criteria published by the Law School Admission Council, reported being most satisfied with their school experiences. More than 80 percent of those surveyed in this category said their experience was either "good" or "excellent." The responses were several points lower at "selective" and "less selective" institutions.

The survey also found that students at the highly selective schools are more likely to participate in moot court, join a law journal or work on a legal research project than are their counterparts -- data that suggest that these institutions have more resources to support the co-curricular activities, the report notes. However, students in the "least selective" school category were more likely to report being supported in meeting their academic needs, having frequent interactions with classmates and peers, working with other students on projects in class and discussing ideas from class with faculty outside of class.

Past reports have noted some of the problems associated with the third year of law school, including students being less academically engaged. Watkins said the focus this year was on what students are doing -- beyond socializing and sleeping -- to fill the void. The survey found, not surprisingly, that third years are more involved in activities such as law journal and pro bono work than are students in their first two years. More than half of third years reported working 18 hours per week or more, and the plurality work for pay in either legal or nonlegal settings.

(The survey still notes that these students report studying less and coming to class less prepared than first- or second-year students.)

The report also found that:

  • Three in 10 students said they will graduate owing more than $100,000 in law school loans. The average student expects to owe between $60,000 and $80,000.
  • Black students more frequently asked questions in class and participated in class discussions than did students from other groups, and were most likely to participate in organizations.
  • Three quarters of all students said their school placed “substantial” emphasis on the ethical aspects of legal practice. Still, less than half said the institution actually "contributed substantially "to their development of a personal code of values or ethics.

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