Do students' career hopes and their expectations align?

People go to law school for all sorts of reasons, but, when it’s all said and done, most want a legal job. And the career options are many. Students may hope to work for a big firm or a boutique, a prosecutor’s office, a legal aid agency, to name a few.

So what are the students’ expectations of getting the kind of legal job they prefer as they toil in law school? And are there differences in race and gender when it comes to those expectations?

This is a big deal if you think about it. If you hope to work as a public defender, but don’t think you stand much of a chance, your law school experience could be less than ideal.    

The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) wanted insight on this. It’s been surveying law students on a host of topics for 15 years. This time, it hoped to learn how closely career hopes and expectations are aligned. More than 18,000 law students from nearly 70 schools took part in this recent effort. 

And it’s no big shock that law students don’t move in lockstep when it comes to preferences, given all the job choices. The problem is that minorities, particularly blacks, are the most likely to think they won’t land the jobs they prefer. Less than half of African Americans think they’ll get a position in the setting of their choice.

Most of the whites — at 60 percent — believe they will get their preferred job. So imagine the differences in optimism and mood one might find in the nation’s law schools.

 “Analyzing particular patterns in the data by race, class, and gender yield significant and troubling findings regarding these disparities,” wrote LSSSE director Meera Deo in the recently released report, “Preferences and Expectations for Future Employment.

“Whites are most likely to expect to work in their preferred fields and positions, while African Americans are more likely than any other racial group to expect that their future jobs will not be the ones that they prefer.”

That may not be completely surprising, given that African-Americans may have faced a tougher road when it comes to getting into law school, Deo said. They are more likely to come from lower-socioeconomic conditions than their white peers.

“They have had fewer opportunities and hence more doubt,” she said.

Law students by nature are very perceptive, which is why blacks students are less optimistic about landing the jobs they prefer, said Aaron Taylor, the executive director of AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence who was formerly the director of LSSSE and helped produce the report. Taylor is black.

“So that makes them kind of tempered,” he said, when it comes to their job hopes. They realize African American graduates have faced struggles in the job market and that they will likely face the same obstacles.

For one, African American students are more likely to attend less elite schools, which can also put them at a disadvantage when it comes to landing jobs, he noted. And racism has hardly been eradicated from the legal profession, which is yet another hurdle, he said.

Taylor wrote a paper called “Diversity as a Law School Survival Strategy” in 2015, which found that schools on the bottom of the prestige pecking order were taking minority students at a disproportionate rate compared to elite schools. They were doing so to fill classes at the time when applications were falling. The elite schools were being more selective, to protect their status.

Such students would naturally feel less confident about their job chances than whites at more prestigious schools, he said. And these students would likely find public interest law more appealing than whites as well. For many, that’s what drew them to law school.

“They want to go back into their communities or serve people who are in communities similar to theirs,” he said. “They still see law an as agent for social change.”

But those jobs are less plentiful, putting black students in even more of a career bind.

Which, as the survey bears out, they realize.

For instance, most students— about 64 percent — told LSSSE they hope to get work with private firms, while 36 percent preferred to find jobs in the public sector. According to the National Association of Job Placement, when it comes to the Class of 2017, 68 percent of graduates got jobs in private practice — a four percent difference from LSSSE’s expectations.

For whites, that’s good news because 65 percent of the respondents said they want a job in private practice. However, African Americans, more so than any other group, expressed interest in public interest jobs — 42 percent. But public service jobs accounted for only 32 percent of the jobs taken by the Class of 2017.

“Black students expect to be disappointed in their job market outcomes at a higher rate than any other group. This is a finding that, while not surprising, should give us all pause,” noted James Leipold, NALP’s executive director, in the report.

He went on to write that the report “highlights the fact that there is much work to be done in helping to shape student preferences and expectations early in law school.”

On the opposite end, Asians overwhelming prefer private practice — at 70 percent — which led all ethnic and racial groups. Among Asian students who want to work in public service, 30 percent believe they’ll end up in private practice anyway. That was the highest proportion of any racial or ethnic group.

Interestingly, the highest percentage of students who prefer to find work in the public service also have the highest debt — $200,000 or more. Forty percent responded so, but those jobs pay less. One would think that students carrying that kind of debt might be drawn to the higher paying jobs in the private sector.

But the relationship between debt load and public service preference can be complicated, Taylor said. Students who prefer such work are more likely to attend the less prestigious schools and don’t get the level of scholarship support. Their total law school cost is likely going to be higher. Plus, these students are more likely to need student loans to make law school possible because they may not have the same kind of financial support from their family.

But debt load doesn’t change their hope of giving back, he said. “There’s no evidence of them chasing money.”

However, he noted that the survey was a “one-time snapshot” and that students’ preferences and expectations may evolve as they go through law school.

Law schools can combat this disparity by making greater efforts to enroll minority students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, he said. And that includes the more elite institutions, which are more likely to lead students to plum public service jobs such as clerkships, he said.

“Plus, law schools need to give students a clear sense of what the job market is,” he said.