Writing Papers in Law School

Writing assignments are useful tools for challenging students to put complex thoughts into understandable language. The amount of writing required in law school can vary across courses, years, and schools. Students also sometimes have different reactions to their writing experiences. Here, we estimate how many pages students wrote during the 2019-2020 school year and show how the number of pages written is related to perceived gains in writing abilities.

Law students report on their writing assignments with three LSSSE questions:

 

Shorter papers (fewer than five pages in length) are quite common law school. Only 16% of respondents did not write any short papers. Most students (59%) wrote between one and six short papers, although 15% of students wrote ten or more.

 

Medium-length papers (5-19 pages) are another staple of law school. Slightly more than half of law students (52%) wrote one to three papers of this length during the previous school year, and another quarter (27%) wrote four to six papers of this length. Only 10% of students did not write a medium-length paper in the previous year.

Long papers (20+ pages) are somewhat less common. About 31% of students did not write any long papers during the previous school year, although more than half of students (58%) wrote between one and three long papers.

We can also use information from these three writing questions to create a very rough estimate of the total number of pages each student wrote for class assignments over the past year. Law students tended to write between 26 and 100 pages total. This range accounts for about 60% of law students. Over a quarter (27%) of law students fell specifically into the 51-75 page range. But nearly one in five law students (19%) wrote over 125 pages in the previous school year.

 

Part of the purpose of writing assignments is to assess how students are assimilating and analyzing information. Another purpose is to enhance students’ writing abilities. In a separate section of the survey, LSSSE asks about the degree to which law school has contributed to the development of the student’s writing ability. Interestingly, when we correlate students’ responses to this question with the number of pages of writing they did over the course of the year, we see a gradual increase that plateaus at around 76-100 pages. That is, in general, students who write more pages of text believe that law school has helped them become better writers but only to a certain point. Beyond about a hundred pages of writing (combined across all their classes), students are not more likely to say that their experience at law school has contributed to their ability to write clearly and effectively.

 

Law school provides consistent opportunities for students to hone their writing and reasoning skills. Most law students write a handful of short- and medium-length papers each year. Students generally feel that law school contributes to their ability to write clearly and effectively, including those students who only wrote 25 or fewer pages in the previous year. However, students who wrote more (up to around 100 pages) tend to respond more favorably to the writing skill development question than students who wrote less.


Working While in Law School

In 2014, the American Bar Associated eliminated the standard that restricted full-time law students from working more than twenty hours per week. Certainly, studying law is an intense and demanding endeavor that may preclude having a job for many students. However, some students continue to work during law school for personal or economic reasons or to gain experience. Here, we look at trends in employment in the legal and non-legal sectors among both full-time and part-time law students.

The vast majority (84%) of part-time students have a job. Full-time students are obviously less likely to work for pay, although 42% of them had jobs in 2020. Breaking the analysis down by enrollment status and class, full-time 1L students are the least likely group to have a job, with a 21% employment rate. The proportion of employed full-time students increases significantly among 2L students (52% employed) and again among 3L students (60% employed). Interestingly, part-time 3L students were somewhat less likely to be employed than their 1L, 2L, and 4L counterparts.

Regardless of the ABA’s abolition of work hour limitations, the vast majority of full-time students continue to work twenty hours per week or fewer. Full-time students with jobs work an average of 14 hours per week. Only about 9% of full-time students work more than twenty hours per week, and only 4% have workloads that approach or exceed full time. Conversely, part-time students with jobs work an average of 32 hours per week. Most part-time students (60%) work approximately full time or more, which we characterize as 31+ hours of work per week.

 

As full-time students progress through their legal studies, they are more likely to work for pay. 2L and 3L students are also much more likely to have a law-related job than their 1L counterparts. Among full-time students who work for pay, only 35% of 1L students have a law-related job, compared to 73% of 2L students and 79% of 3L students. Part-time students are more equally split among law-related and non-legal jobs, although the proportion who work in a legal job increases as students move toward graduation. Forty-four percent of part-time 1L students who work are employed in a law-related job, compared to 59% of 4L students. (Note that the proportions in the figure below do not add up to 100% since employed students may work at both law-related and nonlegal jobs.)

Law school remains a demanding and time-consuming activity. Although the ABA no longer explicitly forbids working full-time while also attending law school full-time, it does not appear that many students are seizing the opportunity to work long hours. This seems abundantly logical given the amount of time that full-time students spend on studying and preparing for class each week. Part-time students are, of course, more likely to have time to work each week, and they are more likely than their full-time colleagues to work in the non-legal sector. This suggests that students are managing to find ways to earn money and gain work experience while also balancing the other demands on their time, and the way they do this is influenced by their enrollment status and the amount of time they have already spent in law school.


How Many Law Students Are Following in Their Lawyer Parent’s Footsteps?

Why and how do people choose their course of study and their future career? While status, compensation, and personal values likely play an important role in choosing a career, there may also be an influence of family tradition. We used LSSSE data from 2019 and 2020 to ask how many law students have at least one lawyer parent and to see whether these students differ in appreciable ways from their classmates who were not raised by a lawyer.

Law students tend to have educated parents. Around 73% of LSSSE respondents have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher. One in five students (20%) have at least one parent with a doctoral or professional degree (PhD, JD, MD, DDS, etc.), and among those students, just over half (53%) report that the doctoral degree is a JD. Overall, 11% of LSSSE respondents have a parent with a JD.

By and large, law students are satisfied with their experiences at law school, and we see minimal differences in satisfaction by parental education. If we combine “good” and “excellent” ratings, satisfaction is 84% among students who have at least one parent with a JD, 83% among students who have at least one parent with a different doctoral degree, and 81% among students whose parents do not have doctoral degrees. Students who have at least one parent with a doctoral degree may be slightly more likely to choose the highest rating (38% vs. 35% among students with non-doctorate parents).

 

 

We do, however, see large differences in expected law school debt based on parental education. Students with less educated parents are much more likely to expect to owe more than $100,000 upon graduation and much less likely to graduate debt-free than their classmates with more educated parents. On some level, this may make sense, given that parental education is a strong predictor of a students’ socioeconomic status. However, it remains deeply problematic given that law school debt disadvantages students from lower income households and minimizes upward economic mobility, particularly among students of color. Interestingly, compared to their counterparts whose parents have non-JD doctoral degrees, students with JD parents are still less likely to owe over $100,000 and are more likely to graduate debt-free. If we assume socioeconomic status is roughly equivalent among parents with doctorates, then there may be some advantage to having a lawyer parent, either by increased parental investment in the students’ education or by a keener insight into navigating the process of financing a legal education.


What Do 1L Students Plan to Do in Law School?

Most students complete law school in three years. With intense coursework and notoriously challenging reading loads, law students must be selective about how they allocate their time toward extracurricular activities. Which enriching activities had 1L students completed or planned to complete before graduation in 2019 and 2020? Check out our interactive visualization below to see.

** Note that non-binary students are included only when the population was large enough to ensure student anonymity in aggregate reporting.


Annual Results 2020 Diversity & Exclusion: Diversity Skills

This year for the first time, LSSSE introduced a set of questions focused on diversity and inclusion that supplement related questions from the primary survey. The Diversity and Inclusiveness Module examines environments, processes, and activities that reflect the engagement and validation of cultural diversity and promote greater understanding of societal differences. The 2020 LSSSE Annual Results Diversity & Exclusion report presents data about how diversity in law school can prepare students for the effective practice of law upon graduation. In our final post in this series, we will explore how law schools can teach skills to equip students to interact with people from different backgrounds.

Schools have a responsibility to not only admit and provide the resources to enroll a diverse class of students, but to impart the skills these students will need to be effective lawyers. Increasingly, the practice of law requires sensitivity to issues of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Law schools can empower students first by encouraging them to reflect on their own identities, and then supplying coursework on issues of privilege, diversity, and equity; while it is important for students to learn about anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, law schools should also equip them with the tools they will need to fight these social problems as attorneys and civic leaders.

Yet schools are, by and large, not preparing law students to meet these challenges and succeed as leaders. When students were asked how frequently they reflect on their own cultural identity, only 12% of White students do so "very often," compared to 50% of Native American students, 44% of Black students, and 34% of Latinx students. Even more alarming, over a quarter (26%) of White students never reflect on their cultural identity during law school. When we consider the intersection of raceXgender, an even more troubling picture emerges. A full 28% of White men and 25% of White women in law school never reflect on their cultural identity, compared to the 50% of Black women who do so "very often."

Students whose parents have less formal education are also more likely to reflect on their cultural identity, including 34% of those whose parents did not finish high school as compared to 16% of those who have a parent with a doctoral or professional degree. In sum, students with racial, gender, or class privilege are less likely to reflect on the benefits associated with their identity.

Even without self-reflection, students can nevertheless gather information about anti-discrimination and harassment policies. LSSSE data show that while White students see their schools as prioritizing this information, students of color do not agree at the same high levels. Similarly, men (31%) are more likely than women (23%) and those with another gender identity (11%) to believe their schools strongly emphasize information about anti-discrimination and harassment. Considering raceXgender, a full 27% of Black women see their schools as doing "very little" to share information on anti-discrimination and harassment, while 32% of White men believe their schools do "very much" in this regard.

Equally troubling, students from different backgrounds perceive institutional emphasis of various diversity-related topics in starkly divergent ways. Although White students believe that their schools emphasize issues of equity or privilege, respecting the expression of diverse ideas, and a broad commitment to diversity, students of color are less likely to agree. Students of color—including those who are Black, Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and multiracial—frequently note and appreciate assignments or discussions of race/ ethnicity and other identity-related topics in the classroom; yet they are more likely than their White peers to report that schools place “very little” emphasis on diversity issues. Women are similarly more likely than men to believe their schools do “very little” to emphasize diversity in coursework. Furthermore, higher percentages of Black women report “very little” emphasis on equity or privilege (36%), respecting diverse perspectives (27%), and an institutional commitment to diversity (21%)— compared to high percentages of White men who believe their schools are doing “very much” in all three arenas (20%, 24%, and 34%, respectively). First-gen students are also more likely than their classmates whose parents completed college to note “very little” diversity coursework. Synthesizing these data, students who are traditionally underrepresented and marginalized—arguably the students who have the most personal experience with issues of diversity—see their schools as doing less to promote diversity and inclusion than those who are privileged in terms of their race/ethnicity, gender, and parental education.

As part of a broad curriculum that sets up students for their future practice, law schools should teach students diversity skills—a set of skills that facilitate success in our increasingly globalized society, ranging from personal reflection to the tangible tools lawyers can use to combat discrimination. Law schools that succeed at these diversity-related endeavors will be preparing our nation’s newest lawyers to meet the full range of challenges ahead.

 


Annual Results 2020 Diversity & Exclusion: Sense of Belonging

This year for the first time, LSSSE introduced a set of questions focused on diversity and inclusion that supplement related questions from the primary survey. The Diversity and Inclusiveness Module examines environments, processes, and activities that reflect the engagement and validation of cultural diversity and promote greater understanding of societal differences. The 2020 LSSSE Annual Results Diversity & Exclusion report presents data about how diversity in law school can prepare students for the effective practice of law upon graduation. In this post, we explore how sense of belonging at law school varies among students from different backgrounds.

Scholarly research indicates that students who have a strong sense of belonging at their schools are more likely to succeed.1 Generally, belonging refers to feeling like part of the institutional community, fitting in, and being comfortable on campus.2 Using a number of separate indicators, LSSSE data on diversity and inclusiveness show that White students are more likely to have a strong sense of belonging than their classmates of color. For instance, when asked whether they feel they are "part of the community at this institution," a full 31% of White students strongly agree—though lower percentages of students of color do, including only 21% of Native American and Black students. Even more problematic when considering the importance of building an inclusive community: women of color are more likely than men from their same racial/ethnic backgrounds to feel that they are not part of the campus community—including a whopping 34% of Black women law students nationwide. First-gen students also deserve greater support, as only 23% "strongly agree" that they feel like part of the community at their law school, compared to 31% of students whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Students of color are also more likely than their White classmates to think their schools do "very little" to ensure students are not stigmatized based on various identity characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. While only 9.3% of White students agree, 14% of Native Americans, 18% of Latinx students, and a full quarter (25%) of Black students believe their schools do "very little" to emphasize that students are not stigmatized based on identity. Similarly, 11% of heterosexual students think their schools do only "very little" to avoid identity-based stigma; conversely, 20% of gay students, 16% of lesbians, 15% of bisexual students, and 19% of those who identify as another sexual orientation see their schools as doing "very little" in this regard. Taken together, these findings suggest that those most likely to suffer stigma are also those most likely to think their schools do very little to protect them.

White students are also more likely than those from other backgrounds to be comfortable being themselves on campus, with only 12% noting they are not. Yet one out of every five (21%) law students who is Native American, Black, or Latinx notes that they do not "feel comfortable being myself at this institution."

There are also disturbing disparities when considering parental education—a strong proxy for family socioeconomic status. Being comfortable on campus increases almost in lockstep with increases in parental education; a full 32% of law students whose parents did not finish high school are uncomfortable being themselves on campus, compared to just 12% of those who have a parent with a doctoral or professional degree.

The overarching theme from this report is that those who are most affected by policies involving diversity—the very students who are underrepresented, marginalized, and non-traditional participants in legal education—are the least satisfied with diversity efforts on campuses nationwide. Nontraditional students remain marginalized on campus, left out of the community, devalued, and underappreciated. The solution is clear: institutions should place greater emphasis on valuing students from all backgrounds, creating an inclusive community, and integrating diversity into the curriculum. With that foundation, law schools can prepare students to interact in meaningful ways with diverse clientele, to first recognize and then resist instances of discrimination or harassment, and to meet the many challenges they will confront in their roles as lawyers and leaders.

 

 

1 Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (2006). What matters to student success: A review of the literature (ASHE Higher Education Report). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2 Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.


Annual Results 2020 Diversity & Exclusion: Institutional Support for Diversity

This year for the first time, LSSSE introduced a set of questions focused on diversity and inclusion that supplement related questions from the primary survey. The Diversity and Inclusiveness Module examines environments, processes, and activities that reflect the engagement and validation of cultural diversity and promote greater understanding of societal differences. The 2020 LSSSE Annual Results Diversity & Exclusion report presents data about how diversity in law school can prepare students for the effective practice of law upon graduation. In our next three posts, we will highlight key findings from the report and suggest some areas for improvement.

Support for diversity in law school must begin with the institution. Yet many students of color do not see their campus as supportive of racial/ethnic differences. Almost a quarter (23%) of Black law students nationwide say their schools do "very little" to create a supportive environment for race/ethnicity, compared to just 6.8% of White students. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 32% of White students believe their schools do "very much" to support racial/ethnic diversity, compared to only 18% of their Black classmates. Men (37%) are also more likely than women (26%) and those of another gender identity (7.5%) to believe their campus is very supportive of racial/ethnic diversity. Even more dramatic are intersectional identity findings, as a full 26% of Black women— more than any other raceXgender group—see their schools doing "very little" to create an environment that is supportive of different racial/ethnic identities, as compared to just 5.5% of White men (while 72% of White men believe their schools do "quite a bit" or "very much" in this arena).

Men are also more likely to see their campus as a "supportive environment for gender diversity," with 39% believing this "very much" as opposed to 27% of women students, and only 9% of students who identify as another gender identity. Furthermore, White students as a whole (33%) see the campus as very supportive of people of different genders, compared to 21% of Native Americans and Black students. Again, the views of White male students differ significantly from most others with a full 40% seeing their campus as very supportive of gender difference. In short, women as well as others from less privileged groups do not see their schools as particularly supportive of gender inclusivity.

Not surprisingly, given the relative lack of support they see for racial/ethnic and gender diversity on campus, women and students of color also believe their schools are less invested in them as individuals. When asked whether they "feel valued" by their law school, a full 30% of men "strongly agree" compared to only 24% of women and 21% of those who identify as neither male or female. Similarly, the racial/ethnic group most likely to "strongly agree" is Whites (28%). In fact, while Latinos, White men, and Black men "strongly agree" that they are valued at roughly equal rates, men feeling more valued than women is consistent across every racial/ethnic group. Furthermore, students who are the first in their families to earn a college degree, often called "first-gen" students, feel less valued by their institution: a full third (33%) note they do not feel valued, compared to a quarter (25%) of others, which is also a significant proportion of law students overall.

Institutions can put mechanisms in place to foster community among those on campus, regardless of their background or experiences. Finding this common ground helps all students understand that they belong and that others who may be different should be equally welcome. Again, White students are most likely to believe their institution emphasizes the importance of "creating an overall sense of community among students." While 28% of White students think their schools do this "very much," smaller percentages of students of color feel similarly. Even more disheartening, 18% of Black students and 14% of Latinx students think their schools do "very little" to foster community.

Many law schools have made concerted efforts to add student diversity to their campuses. But once students enroll, we owe it to them to provide a safe and welcoming environment, one where they feel valued, where they can be themselves, where they acquire the tools they need to succeed in the workplace, and where they can thrive. Admitting and even enrolling more students of color, first-gen students, students who identify as LGBTQ, and women is not enough unless that diversity is accompanied by inclusion. Law schools that want their students to succeed as future lawyers and leaders must commit to fostering a campus community where the most vulnerable and non-traditional are encouraged to reach their full potential, where faculty are expected to train students not only for the global marketplace but for the realities of American life, and where all students appreciate their own backgrounds, biases, and responsibilities to the profession.


Where do students get advice?

LSSSE’s optional Student Services module asks students about whether and how often they access academic and career services. Students draw from various sources to get advice about law school, legal education, and their future careers. Here, we look at the most commonly selected meaningful sources of advice for students and examine how patterns of advice-seeking change as students progress through law school.

 

Advice about Academic Plans

Faculty or staff not formally assigned as an academic advisor are the most common meaningful source of advice about academic planning. Over 40% of LSSSE respondents rely on these personal relationships that they develop with the law school professionals around them. Formal academic advisors –those assigned and those available to any students – are the second and third most commonly used sources of advice and were selected by 26% and 23% of students, respectively. About 22% of students consider websites, catalogs, or other published sources to be meaningful sources of advice about academic plans, and roughly one in five consulted family members. Only 14% of respondents did not seek academic advice from anyone during the current school year.

Students appear to rely less on assigned academic advisors as they progress through law school. Roughly one-third of 1L students say their assigned academic advisor was a meaningful source of advice, but only 15% of 3L students feel the same way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 3L students were slightly less likely to seek academic advice than 1L and 2L students.

Advice about Career Plans

The ranking of meaningful sources of advice about career planning is remarkably similar to the ranking for advice about academic planning. Students highly value their relationships with law school faculty and staff when it comes to seeking career advice, ranking faculty or staff not formally assigned as a career advisor highest (38%), followed by career advisors available to any student (35%) and then assigned career advisors (27%). Interestingly, students were equally likely to select family members and assigned career advisors as meaningful sources of career advice. Twelve percent of respondents did not seek any career advice during the current school year.

Students rely less on assigned career advisors as they progress through law school, which is similar to the pattern we saw for academic advising. However, the gradual decrease in reliance on formal career advising is somewhat mirrored by a gradual increase in reliance on advice from faculty or staff not formally assigned as career advisors. It would appear that as students refine their interests and form relationships with particular faculty or staff members, they start to rely more on personal relationships for career advising and less on relationships facilitated by the structure of law school.


Learning How to Think Like a Lawyer

A legal education strives to teach law students how to "think like a lawyer." Although students may not articulate their reasons for attending law school in exactly this way, the rigor of the law school curriculum certainly challenges students to develop mental flexibility and analytical critical thinking skills. LSSSE asks students to comment on the degree to which their coursework emphasizes the development of several mental activities, namely memorizing, analyzing, synthesizing, making judgments, and applying ideas to new situations.

For each skill, more than half of law students indicated that their school emphasized developing that skill "quite a bit" or "very much." Analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory was a nearly universal skill with ninety percent of 2020 LSSSE respondents reporting high emphasis in their coursework. Nearly as many (85%) said their law school placed a high emphasis on applying theories or concepts to new situations. About 83% felt that their coursework emphasized synthesizing ideas into new interpretations, and about 74% said the same for making judgments about the value of information. Memorization was the least emphasized mental activity, but still, 61% reported that their coursework places a high emphasis on memorizing facts, ideas, or methods.

 

1L students were slightly more likely than 3L students to say that their coursework emphasized the development of any given mental activity. This may be because 1L students are still in the process of adjusting to the rigors of a legal education and thus are more likely to see their educational challenges as formidable. It may also reflect the slight gradual decline in satisfaction and enthusiasm that occurs as law students progress through their degree programs.

 

Interestingly, the ranking of the five mental activities has remained constant since at least 2005. The longitudinal LSSSE data show a slight increase in the proportion of students who report that their schools place a high emphasis on each mental activity from 2005 to 2015 and then a slight decrease or plateau for each activity from 2015 to 2020.

 

Clearly, law school remains a challenging endeavor in that it places a strong emphasis on developing higher order mental faculties including analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory, applying theories or concepts to new situations, and synthesizing ideas into new interpretations. Only a tiny percentage of students report that their legal education has placed very little emphasis on any of these skills. This suggests that law school is delivering on the promise to teach students how to think like a lawyer.


The LLM Experience

For the first time this year, we invited LLM (Master of Laws) students at American law schools to participate in LSSSE alongside their JD colleagues. To our knowledge, this is the first national empirical survey of LLM students. Here we present a few initial findings about this unique group of students.

Basic Demographics

International students make up 79% of LLM students at American law schools. Among students born in other countries, the most common nation of origin is China, which is the home of 22% of international LLM students. The next three most common home countries are Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Brazil, which each account for around six percent of the LLM international student population.

Because a JD degree or international equivalent is required for admittance to LLM programs, most LLM students are somewhat older than the typical law student. The majority (58%) of LLM students are between the ages of 26 and 40. Fifteen percent are over 40 and 28% are 25 or younger. LLM students are somewhat more likely to be women, which is in keeping with current trends toward slightly more female law students than male law students.

 

Satisfaction

In general, LLM students are satisfied with their law school experience. If given the chance to start over, most (78%) would choose to pursue a law degree and most (85%) would probably or definitely attend the same law school they are now attending. Nearly half (46%) rate their experiences as excellent, and another 38% rate their overall experience as good. Only 3% of LLM students describe having a poor experience. These data suggest that LLM students see their current degree program as a good investment. Future LSSSE reports will delve deeper into how LLM students engage with the law school experience and how satisfied they are with specific features of their programs.