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Major New Research Study on Lawyer Careers Reveals a Changing Profession, but Little Progress on Race and Gender Equality

October 24, 2014, Press releases

A major new research study of lawyer careers, the most extensive and ambitious national longitudinal study of the American legal profession ever undertaken, shines a light on the 21st-century realities of the American legal profession  and by extension, the American justice system. After the JD III: Third Results of a National Study of Legal Careers follows a nationally representative sample of lawyers who passed the bar in 2000. The study examines such factors as legal education, debt, job mobility, race and gender, family formation, and the impact of the Great Recession on respondents. The study offers a comprehensive analysis of lawyer careers and opens the door for contemplation of the future of the profession that is a cornerstone of the U.S. legal systems.

The study, over 20 years in the making, was funded by the American Bar Foundation; the National Association for Law Placement (NALP): The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education; and the National Science Foundation. The study surveyed the same representative group of lawyers three times over the course of twelve years and uncovered a complex picture of a profession that is changing rapidly in some respects, and yet stalled on progress on race and gender equality.

According to Robert L. Nelson, Director of the American Bar Foundation and Professor of Sociology and Law and Northwestern University and co-principal investigator of After the JD, "This third report provides unique insights into the evolution of lawyers' careers. We see the persistence of inequalities by race, class, and gender played out over careers."   Nelson noted specifically that people of color, and especially women of  color, are less likely to have made partner in private law firms, the most remunerative sector of the profession. He added, "Women  are far more likely than men to be unemployed or working part-time, and even full-time women attorneys make 80 percent of what make attorneys make. Moreover, twelve years into careers, where one went to law school has a profound influence on where one practices." He reported, "We see an exodus from large firms to business.  Surprisingly, almost 20 percent of attorneys report they are not practicing law." Yet, says Nelson, "the sample also overwhelmingly says they are happy with their decision to become a lawyer and would make the investment in a law degree if they had to do it over again."  He observed, "They offer this assessment while acknowledging the effects of the recession on their personal careers and their employers.  These are facts that lawyers, legal employers, law school administrators, and career counselors need to know."

Tammy Patterson, CEO and President of the NALP Foundation, explains that "from the onset of this project, the AJD research team set out to answer several important questions about legal career paths," such as:

  • What is the effect of the legal education experience on a lawyer's first job choice and salary?
  • Do factors such as law school experience, social networks, and academic performance differentially affect mean and women and majority groups in their career paths?
  • How do individuals' legal training, social network, and personal contacts affect their job choices and mobility?
  • What are the effects of starting income on later job choices and mobility?
  • How satisfied are new bar admittees with their career choices?
  • How many lawyers are leaving the practice of law, and what are their reasons for doing so?


However," said Patterson, "The one question not contemplated in the original scope of the project, but afforded to our research team as a result of the economic downturn in the late 2000s, is how a recession would affect jobs, careers and financial considerations of lawyers. The findings obtained around the economic and professional impact of the recession will serve the profession for years to come."

According to James Leipold, NALP's executive director, "This study is of enormous importance, particularly at this time when there are so many fundamental questions about the value of legal education. Despite the challenges faced as a result of the recession, the lawyers in this cohort continue to express very high levels of satisfaction with their decisions to become lawyers." He noted, " I would expect to see trends identified by this research to continue to manifest themselves, particularly the very high level of job mobility in the first five years of practice. It is no longer the case that a law school graduate can expect to spend an entire career with a single legal employer. And finally, these study results should serve as a wake-up call for the indusstry - the disparities in outcome for women and minority attorneys are in some ways quite shocking."

"The signficance of this study should not be lost upon anyone concerned about the state of the profession and its ever-changing landscape." said Thomas L. Sager, former General Counsel of DuPont and outgoing Chair of the NALP Foundation. " The profession is clearly at a crossroads," Sager noted, "and faces a variety of significant challenges, but it is through studies like After the JD III that real positive change may result in making our profession fairer, and more accessible to the next wave of JDs."

The study was led by Nelson, Ronit Dinovitzer, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto, and Faculty Fellow, American Bar Foundation; Bryant G. Garth, Chancellor's Professor of Law, University of California Law School at Irvine;  John L. Hagan, Research Professor, American Bar Foundation, and John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University; Tammy Patterson, President and CEO, NALP Foundation; Rebecca Sandefur, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Illinois, and Faculty Fellow, American Bar Foundation; Joyce Sterling, Professor of Law and Associate Dean of Faculty Scholarship, University of Denver Sturm College of Law; David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law and Director of both the Program on the Legal Professsion and the Professional Services Industry Center at Harvard Law School; and Terry Adams, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (retired).

About the American Bar Foundation

The American Bar Foundation's mission is to serve the legal profession, the public, and the academy through empirical research, publications and programs that advance  justice and the understanding of law's impact on society. Primary funding for the ABF  is provided by the American Bar Endowment.

About NALP and the NALP Foundation

NALP is an association of over 2,500 legal career professionals who advise law students, lawyers, law offices, and law schools in North America and beyone. 

The misson of the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education is to improve the quality and delivery of legal services by advancing:

  • excellence in strategic  and practical organizational leadership:
  • effective management of legal personnel;
  • professional development of lawyers
  • access to and diversity within the profession; and
  • ethical practices and professionalism

For more information on the After the JD Study or its dataset and to obtain a copy of the report, contact: Robert L. Nelson: rnelson@abfn.org; or Tammy Patterson: tpatterson@nalpfoundation.org

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