Law Student Employment Expectations and Law Student Debt

Given the relationship between employment and the ability to make student loan payments, we were curious of any associations between expected debt and expected employment setting.  As a general proposition, jobs in large law firms tend to pay more than jobs in government and non-profit and in small firm or solo practice.  Therefore, job expectations, which are by no means perfect predictors of jobs opportunities, could nonetheless have implications on the ability of students to manage their debt.

In 2011 and 2015, respondents who expected more than $80,000 in debt were least likely to expect to work in large law firms—the highest paying sector.  Conversely, respondents who expected no debt or less than $40,000 in debt were most likely to expect large law firm jobs.   Expectations of jobs in government and non-profit sectors were more balanced, but respondents expecting no debt were noticeably less likely to expect to work in these sectors.  No definitive conclusions can be drawn from these trends alone.  But they provide useful insights into student expectations and possibly can help portend job trends.  [i]

[i]. Employment Expectations by Expected Debt Level


Gov’t/Non-profit Firm-Large Firm-Medium Firm-Small Solo
0 27% 19% 22% 15% 3%
$1-$40K 30% 18% 22% 16% 2%
$40,001-$80K 31% 15% 23% 17% 2%
$80,001-$120K 29% 15% 25% 19% 2%
> $120K 28% 19% 25% 17% 2%



Gov’t/Non-profit Firm-Large Firm-Medium Firm-Small Solo
0 28% 15% 18% 17% 3%
$1-$40K 33% 13% 19% 17% 2%
$40,001-$80K 34% 11% 20% 18% 3%
$80,001-$120K 35% 9% 19% 18% 3%
> $120K 35% 9% 17% 19% 3%



Gov’t/Non-profit Firm-Large Firm-Medium Firm-Small Solo
0 29% 17% 20% 16% 3%
$1-$40K 34% 15% 18% 17% 4%
$40,001-$80K 35% 12% 18% 18% 4%
$80,001-$120K 34% 10% 19% 20% 4%
> $120K 35% 12% 17% 19% 5%



Law Student Employment Expectations--Before and After the Great Recession

Employment aspirations can influence different aspects of a student’s law school experience and, therefore, can influence student engagement and satisfaction.  Students often select courses and co-curricular activities based on the type of job or area of law in which they aspire to work after graduation.  The following question on the LSSSE Survey asks respondents about their employment aspirations and expectations:

Which setting(s) best describe(s) (1) your PREFERRED work environment, and (2) your EXPECTED work environment once you graduate from law school?   (Mark only one in each column.)

The question captures both aspirations (“preferred”) and realities (“expected”)—important perspectives, both on their own and relative to each other.  The analyses below will focus on responses to the expected work environment aspect of the question.

In answering the question, respondents are given fifteen specific settings from which to choose (and one open-ended choice, labeled “Other”).  The specific choices capture major work settings in the private, public, and non-profit sectors.  In analyzing the responses for this Report, we tracked trends using the following categories:

  • Private firm - large (more than 50 attorneys)
  • Private firm - medium (10-50 attorneys)
  • Private firm - small (fewer than 10 attorneys)
  • Solo practice
  • Public/Non-profit sectors:
    • Academic (professor, education agency)
    • Government agency
    • Judicial clerkship
    • Legislative office
    • Military
    • Prosecutor's office
    • Public defender's office
    • Public interest group

The “Public/Non-profit sectors” category is one we constructed using responses from eight specific choices that appear on the survey.  Each of these choices falls in either the public or non-profit sector, and they encompass the traditional practice of law as well as “non-traditional” careers.  Some of the choices elicited few responses.  For example, only about 1% of respondents in 2015 expected to work in academic, legislative, or military settings.  “Government agency” was the most common expectation within the constructed category, accounting for about 30% of those responses.

The private firm and solo practice categories appear on the survey in the form they are listed above; therefore, the data below reflect the proportions of respondents who identified either as the setting in which they expected to work.  Each of these settings resides within the private sector; but they are very different in terms of size, scope, and the types of students who tend to expect to work in these settings.  A student who expects to work in a large law firm is probably different from a student who expects to work in a small firm or solo practice.  These differences encompass a range of student characteristics, including, notably, race and ethnicity (white and Asian respondents are more likely to expect to work in large law firms).

Over the three survey years, employment expectations among LSSSE respondents seem to align with larger trends.  The proportion of respondents who expected to work in large law firms declined from 17% in 2006 to 12% in 2015.  Similarly, proportions relating to medium-size firm declined from 24% in 2006 to 18% in 2015.  These trends align, albeit roughly, with the declines in law firm hiring in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  Proportions of respondents who expected to work in solo practice were small in each survey year; but interestingly, the proportion doubled between 2006 and 2015—from 2% to 4%.[i]

Expectations relating to small law firm employment were stable—17% in 2006 and 18% in both 2011 and 2015.  Expectations of employment within the public/non-profit sectors increased from 29% in 2006 and 34% in 2011 and 2015.   It is difficult to identify the factors underlying the latter trend.  Declines in job expectations in medium and large law firms likely explain at least part of the increase.  Broader awareness of income-based student loan repayment programs, particularly the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, may be contributing as well.