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New Research Provides Insight into Trends in Legal Education over the Past 15 Years

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Newly-released data by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) provides a compelling look at changes and trends in legal education from 2004 to 2019. Data from this Report, The Changing Landscape of Legal Education: A 15-Year LSSSE Retrospective, draw from the responses of 72,692 law students at 248 law schools that participated in LSSSE in four survey years: 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019.

“It is an honor to share this longitudinal analysis of LSSSE data, highlighting fifteen years of partnerships with law schools focused on improving legal education,” said Meera E. Deo, Director of LSSSE. “To that end, we see consistent employment expectations, increases in student learning outcomes, and high levels of overall satisfaction with the law school experience. While there is still work ahead, especially with regard to debt, I am confident that LSSSE will continue to help schools reach their goals.”

Noteworthy findings from the report include:

Shifting Demographics

  • Today, there are higher percentages of students of color than in 2004, and a commensurate decrease in the percentage of white students.
  • White men have consistently comprised the largest share of law students of any raceXgender group though that dropped from 86% of men in 2004 to 74% in 2019. The percentage of Black male law students doubled from 3% to 6% in fifteen years; while Black women have not seen similar gains, they did report a slight spike in 2014.

Dramatic Debt Increases

  • In 2004, only 18% of all LSSSE respondents expected to owe more than $100,000 in student loan debt. By 2019, that number had skyrocketed to 39%.
  • In 2004, there were only marginal racial and ethnic differences among students expecting to owe more than $100,000. By 2019, 56% of Black respondents and 53% of Latinx respondents expected to owe more than $100,000 in student loan debt, compared to about 35% of White and Asian American respondents.

Positive Learning Outcomes

  • In 2004, only 23% of students saw their schools as doing “quite a bit” or “very much” to help them understand people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds; by 2019, that number had increased to almost half (45%) of all students.
  • Schools have increased their emphasis on professional responsibility in the past fifteen years. In 2004, 43% of students saw their schools as doing “quite a bit” or “very much” to encourage them to develop a personal code of values and ethics, while that has now grown to 58%.

High Levels of Satisfaction

  • Over the past fifteen years, students have consistently reported high levels of overall satisfaction with law school. While overall satisfaction rates look surprisingly constant over time, there are disparities and differences by race, gender, and raceXgender.
  • Higher percentages of men than women within each racial/ethnic group of color saw their overall law school experience as “excellent” in 2004. While those results have varied somewhat over time, Whites as a whole consistently have the highest rates of overall satisfaction. White women tend to be more satisfied with their law school experience than any other raceXgender group while Black women have been consistently least satisfied.
  • There also has been a consistent pattern of improvement with academic advising, career counseling, personal counseling, and job search help.
  • While over half (53%) of students who sought out academic support were satisfied with advising and planning in 2004, that number grew to almost three-quarters (71%) by 2019.
  • In 2004, 51% of students were satisfied with career counseling. Since then satisfaction has grown steadily over time with 60% satisfied in 2009, 64% in 2014, and 69% satisfied in 2019.

Consistent Job Expectations

  • Roughly half of all LSSSE participants have expected to join private firms upon graduation in a consistent fashion from 2004 (49%) through 2019 (45%).
  • Similarly, expectations for work in government (including agencies, judicial clerkships, legislative offices, military, prosecutor’s office, and public defender’s office) has remained between 25% (2004) and 29% (2019).
  • There are differences in the size of private firms students expect to join. While in 2004, 17% of students expected to join private firms with under 10 lawyers, that number has shrunk to only 8%. On the opposite end, the share of students expecting to join large firms of over fifty attorneys has grown from just 13% in 2004 to 22% in 2019.