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Post-recession, more students see law career as a way to give back

For today’s generation of aspiring law students, a career in the law is less about making a buck, and more about making an impact, a new study suggests.

According to a survey conducted by Gallup for the Association of American Law Schools, undergraduates considering law school report that their top reason for doing so is to pursue a career in politics, government or other public service. Students also listed having a passion for the work, looking for an opportunity to give back to society, and wanting to help advocate for social change as other top reasons for thinking about law school.

Students who responded to the survey listed higher paying jobs and the prestige of being a lawyer as being less important to them. The survey polled more than 22,000 college students and over 2,700 current law students from across the country.

Lawyers Weekly spoke to administrators from South Carolina’s law schools to get their perspective on their interpretation of the poll and to learn more about how it’s impacting their approach to teaching law.

Jill Kunkle, senior associate director of career services at the University of South Carolina School of Law said that her university has adopted a pro bono program to give students more opportunity to get hands-on public service experience. She also pointed toward fellowship opportunities provided by the school to help students get more experience in the public sector.

“The fellowships offer a unique opportunity for USC Law Students to explore public service careers while gaining valuable experience,” she said in an email.

Andrew Abrams, dean at the Charleston School of Law, said that while he has noticed somewhat of an uptick in student interest in public service, he also feels that this has always been a part of the culture at the school.

“We’ve always attracted students interested in public service,” he said. “The vast majority of our students weren’t coming in with the goal of going to work in New York City in giant law firms with huge billable hours, but were instead interested in a personal-touch practice.”

To practice with a purpose

While some administrators said they don’t believe the altruistic interest in law school is different now than in years past, Abrams disagreed and offered an explanation. He said that some of the change may relate to the economic downturn during the Great Recession.

“As the economy softened, enrollment continued, and even went up,” he said, explaining that some students were applying to law school simply for lack of better opportunities elsewhere. “When students were coming to school because the economy was soft, they weren’t necessarily there for the right reasons.”

However, when the economy worsened, and law jobs became more scarce, he said enrollment plummeted, leading to the majority of students who applied doing so because they had a passion they wanted to pursue.

“When the economy tanked, people quit going just for the heck of it, and we started seeing a more focused group of students then,” he said. “Now there is a good job market and they don’t have to go to law school as a place to hide out, they’re here with a purpose in mind, and that purpose is what we were previously seeing. They’re not about the salary, it’s much more toward career satisfaction, making an impact, and going into government service and the like.

He said he’s happy to see the trend.

“I’m thrilled,” Abrams said. “I love the fact that we’ve got students passionate about using law for positive changes in society.”

Real World, law school edition

Abrams pointed to the school’s motto of “pro bono populi,” meaning “for the good of the people” and the school’s history as an early adopter of a pro bono requirement as a condition for graduation as evidence of its commitment. In fact, he said that most students do far more than the 30-hour pro bono minimum required for graduation.

But beyond what Charleston has always done, he said the law school has created new programs and classes to accommodate students’ rising interest in government and other public sector work.

“We’re adding courses on not-for-profits and doing a lot more with our career series … bringing in a lot more people from the governmental sector to talk about what it is to be an attorney working for a governmental agency,” he said.

He also pointed toward the school’s externship program which is aimed at giving students the chance to work in public service fields in the real world.

“We’ve expanded the programs because we’re seeing increased interest,” he said. “And in some ways, that’s often more valuable than just sitting in a class because they’re rolling their sleeves up and working in areas that will interest them after school.”

Kunkle, the USC associate director, said that apart from offering a government and public interest job information fair, USC offers third-year students the chance to represent clients and appear in court under the supervision of faculty to get real-world experience in criminal practice, nonprofit law, juvenile justice, child protection advocacy and special education.

“These courses instill practical skills to help our students make a smooth transition from law student to lawyer,” she said.

Michael Banks, director of admission communications at Charleston, said it’s affirming to get data to validate what the university has always emphasized.

“Our students continue doing great things in law school, and outside of it,” he said. “And we’ll continue reminding prospective students that that’s our mission. If they come to the law school, they’ll be a part of something greater than themselves, and then they’ll take that knowledge and those skills and use that to help people in the community.”

Follow Matthew Chaney on Twitter @SCLWChaney

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