Legal Education at the Close of the Twentieth Century: Descriptions and Analyses of Students, Financing, and Professional Expectations and Attitudes
Linda F. Wightman


Legal education is the gateway to what is considered by many to be one of the most prestigious and socially mobile professions in the United States. Admission to law school is very competitive, and data about the background and academic credentials of law school applicants suggest that many of the best and the brightest of America’s college graduates vie for the approximately 44,000 available first-year places in law school.

The subjects of this study are the students who entered a law school Juris Doctor (J.D.) program in fall 1991. Those entering students were selected from more than 99,000 applicants. The 1990-91 application year produced the largest number of applicants in the history of legal education. Thus, the 1990-91 applicant data suggest that law schools had maximum flexibility in selecting first-year classes that could meet their individual academic and social admission goals. This report provides a demographic and academic description of the students who are members of the fall 1991 entering class, as well as a summary of self-reported data about debt, financial aid, and professional goals and attitudes at the start of law school. The descriptions are presented from two perspectives. First, salient characteristics of the total group of students are summarized. Next, the allocation of those students across the spectrum of law schools is examined.

This report is the first in a series that will be developed from a national longitudinal study of legal education and entry into the profession that is sponsored by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The national longitudinal study, titled the LSAC Bar Passage Study, is the most comprehensive study of legal education undertaken to date and will provide insights into the practices and consequences of legal education. This initial report looks only at the fall 1991 first-year law students at the beginning of their first year. It addresses fundamental questions such as who is in law school? How are students allocated across law schools? What are some of the social, financial, and professional consequences of the selection and allocation process?

This report is not the first attempt to provide a snapshot of the characteristics of law school students at a given point in time nor is it the first attempt to study the relationship between selected demographic variables and the allocation of applicants to different schools. To the extent possible, this report will contrast data and parallel analyses conducted from two often-cited earlier studies of the characteristics of law school students and the allocation of those students to law schools to provide a sense of historical trends as well as a current description of law students and law schools. One study, conducted by Warkov and Zelan, surveyed students who received their undergraduate degrees in spring 1961 and entered law school during the 1961-62 academic year. Their sample included approximately 1,275 students. In the other study, Cappell and Pipkin obtained data about 1,370 students who were in law school during the 1975-76 academic year. The students included in the Cappell and Pipkin study represented seven different law schools, while the students included in the Warkov and Zelan study were spread across 124 different schools. The current study is considerably more comprehensive than either of the two earlier studies in that it includes data from nearly 29,000 students representing 155 American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law schools.

The first chapter of this report describes the several classification schemes and indices that were used to group both student data and law school data for analyses purposes. It also provides additional detail about the studied sample and about the several data sources.

Chapter two presents demographic descriptors of the fall 1991 first-year class. Some highlights of the data reported in the chapter follow. On the one hand, the data describe a class that is predominately white and predominately male. At the same time, they illustrate striking increases in the proportion of women and students of color across the 30 year period for which trends are examined. Examination of the socioeconomic status (SES) and selectivity of undergraduate degree-granting schools reveals a positive relationship between the two. The data also provide evidence that the educational level of the parents of these students—typical indicators of SES—exceeds that of the general population of college students with whom these law students were peers.

Chapter three focuses on descriptions of how the students who make up the fall 1991 entering class are distributed across law schools. To accomplish this, two alternative methods for grouping law schools are considered. The data show that prelegal academic achievement is a prime determinant in allocation to law school, as is socioeconomic status. The data also show that neither gender nor ethnicity are determining variables. Additional analyses presented in chapter three consider these determining variables simultaneously to provide better insight to the patterns of distribution of students across law schools.

Chapter four addresses questions about prelaw school debt as well as questions about how the 1991 first-year law school students are covering the cost of their legal educations. Among the highlights of the data presented in chapter four is the finding that nearly 60 percent of the class reported no outstanding educational debt at the start of school and that nearly 40 percent of those with some debt report debts of $5,000 or less. The data also confirm the commonly held notion that the major source for funding for law school is student loans. Analyses presented in chapter four examine several sources of funding including family support, loans, savings, and stipends by law school groups. The chapter also includes the estimated costs of attending law school and reports about students’ concern about debt accumulation.

Data about the employment preferences and expectations of the fall 1991 entering class are presented in chapter five. The data show not only that students have identified preferences at the time they began law school, but also that these preferences differ by both gender and by ethnicity. Employment preferences also are examined relative to other variables including type of law school, father's occupation, and prelegal academic achievement. Finally, the relationship between the work setting in which the students would most like to work and the setting in which they expect they most likely will work after graduation is examined.

The final chapter presents student responses to a series of professional attitude questions. Students’ level of agreement or disagreement with statements addressing issues of job security, pro bono time, professional salary, and professional ethics are summarized by preferred area of employment and by type of law school.

Legal Education at the Close of the Twentieth Century: Descriptions and Analyses of Students, Financing, and Professional Expectations and Attitudes

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