Study provides insight into lawyer careers

The American Bar Foundation has released the latest set of findings from "After the JD," the first national study of lawyer careers. The new data confirm the widespread view that young lawyers often change jobs and demonstrate that they are satisfied with their careers and in their decision to become a lawyer. The study points to the fact that many are working in business and that women, more than men, have sought more flexibility in their careers and work in part-time settings, or are now unemployed.

The results are contained in "After the JD II: Second Results From a National Study of Legal Careers," which has tracked a national sample of nearly 5,000 lawyers who passed the bar in 2000. The results, jointly published by the ABF and the National Association for Law Placement Foundation, mark the culmination of the second of three phases of a longitudinal examination of lawyers' careers and the factors that influence their career choice and pathways.

The project comprehensively examines key aspects of the life course of young lawyers, investigating the jobs they have taken, the hours they work, their fields of specialty, income, job turnover and patterns of mobility across jobs, dimensions of satisfaction, differences by race and gender, and personal choices such as getting married and having a family.

Some of the key findings of the study to date are eye-opening and were unexpected. The study confirms the widespread view that young lawyers are extremely mobile, with more than one-half of graduates changing practice settings between 2003 and 2007. However, the results also contradict reports of high levels of dissatisfaction among lawyers, as more than three-quarters of them reporting they are extremely satisfied, or satisfied with their decision to become a lawyer. Other findings track diversity in the legal profession and show that women and minorities had made enormous progress and that women are more likely than their male counterparts to be unemployed or work part-time.

ABF Director and Northwestern professor Robert L. Nelson, a principal investigator on the study, observed, "The second wave of results demonstrates the enormous variety of and increasing fluidity of lawyer careers. Among the more striking patterns we see is the departure of law firm associates for positions in business as inside counsel. And although we still see some differences in the job choices of women and minorities compared to other lawyers, we find more convergence in careers across these groups than we would have predicted based on prior research."

Nelson added, "We are keenly interested to see whether these patterns hold up in the next wave of data collection, as these young lawyers reach the time in their careers when they will make partner or be forced to find other employment. We will have an historic opportunity to examine the impact of the recent financial collapse on the careers of young lawyers."

The research team includes prominent scholars, both nationally and internationally, who are recognized for their research on the legal profession. They include Bryant Garth, dean of Southwestern University Law School and director emeritus of the ABF; Ronit Dinovitzer of the University of Toronto and faculty fellow of the ABF; Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver; Gabriele Plickert of the ABF; John Hagan, ABF scholar and professor at Northwestern University; David Wilkins of Harvard Law School; Rebecca Sandefur of Stanford University; Terry K. Adams of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research; and Tammy Patterson and Gita Wilder of the NALP Foundation.

The study is still underway with the third and final phase now in progress and expected to be completed in 2012. The completed project is predicted to provide unprecedented information on an entire generation of lawyers.

Copies of "After the JD II: Second Results from a National Study of Legal Careers" can be obtained through the NALP online bookstore, accessible via the ABF Web site at Scholars interested in obtaining the AJD dataset may contact Gabriele Plickert of the ABF.

Published: Thu, Mar 4, 2010