The Moving Walkway

In the last post, I set up a dilemma. Why do a majority of prospective law students say they want to go into public interest law, but only a tiny sliver do after law school? I posited that there were three factors at play – culture, personality, and financial necessity.

Today, I’ll discuss law school culture and how it encourages students to give up on their public interest dreams. I liken it to a moving walkway that students step on as soon as they enter their first year that leads them to take certain jobs after law school. Students step on the moving walkway for several reasons – everyone else is stepping on, the school is encouraging it, and, well, it’s easier than forging your own path.

The weird thing about public interest jobs is that while they pay less than law firm jobs, they are harder to get. Students apply for law firm jobs through on-campus interviewing programs in which a student can interview with many firms without doing much more than submitting a resume. Firms then make it easy for students to stay on the moving walkway once they have stepped on. They lure students to accept summer positions by paying them more than most students have made in their lives. By the end of their 2L summer, most summer associates have an offer in hand for after graduation. At that point, it is hard to turn down.

Students who are interested in public interest jobs have to work much harder. A few organizations may participate in on-campus interviewing, but most don’t. They may have only have 1 or 2 internships available each summer, as opposed to law firms that often hire dozens of summer associates. Students have to craft individualized cover letters and applications for each internship. Non-profits expect applicants not only to have excellent grades, but also to express enthusiasm for and, ideally, have experience in the specific sub-area of law in which the organization works. Moreover, summer public interest internships – which are usually unpaid – don’t tend to lead to permanent job offers. Instead, students have to go through another round of applications for public interest fellowships and entry-level jobs. These fellowships and jobs are even rarer than the internships they applied for a year earlier. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that many law students give up and take a firm job.

Law schools could try to be a counter-balance to these incentives, and they do – to an extent. Some law schools, for example, provide post-graduation fellowships for students so that they can work at a non-profit organizations for one or two years. These fellowships are critical to jump-starting public interest careers.

But most law schools are more than happy to see the vast majority of their graduates go work in the private sector. To understand why, you have to understand the different interests of law schools and their students.

Let’s start with your interests as a law student. When you are thinking about what job you want to take after graduation, you may have many considerations in mind. You want a job that is fulfilling and challenging, but that allows you to have a good work-life balance. You may be thinking about having a family and may decide on a career path in part based on which job makes that feasible. You also want to live a good life, and that probably requires a decent salary. At the very least, you need to be able to pay your students loans payments and for basic living expenses. You might also be looking for a job that gives you a sense of purpose and that allows you to contribute something important in the world. There may be no job that allows you to balance all of these considerations perfectly, but they all may influence which job you end up taking.

Now let’s turn to the interests of law schools. They may say that they have the same goals as their students and that they are trying to make sure every student finds the job of their dreams after graduation. Of course they say that! Students are customers and they are trying to convince students to enroll at their school rather than somewhere else.

But law schools’ institutional interests differ in several important respects. First and foremost, they want to make sure that as many of their graduates as possible are employed in legal jobs ten months after graduation, because that is one of the statistics that U.S. News and World Report uses to determine law school rankings. It requires fewer career development resources to get students jobs in the private sector than it does to help them get public interest jobs. Moreover, they have an incentive to encourage students to take the first job offer they get because then they can focus their resources on the remaining students without jobs. As an added incentive, the higher the average salary is of their graduating class, the more alumni resources are likely to flow back to the law school in perpetuity. A higher average salary also allows schools to justify high tuition costs.

Why is it, then, that law schools spend resources developing their public interest programs? Because their incentives are different when they are recruiting students than when they are placing them in jobs. Remember, many prospective law students want to pursue public interest careers, and those students are choosing law schools in part based on their public interest programs.

In other words, if law schools made decisions based on their own interests (rather than the interests of their students) you would see robust public interest programs as well as institutional pressure for students to choose private sector employment once they matriculate. Ideally, they would also have a few students who successfully get public interest jobs because the example of those students is important for recruitment purposes. Unsurprisingly, that is precisely what we see.

This does not mean that there are not individual professors and staff who are committed to helping students have rewarding public interest legal careers. They exist at every law school. But it is difficult for those individuals to completely counteract the institutional culture that law students regularly encounter.

Thus, a student who comes to law school wanting to do public interest law faces strong headwinds. It’s no wonder that the moving walkway looks so enticing.

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