Law Links - November 2013

Encouraging numbers on lawyers’ satisfaction

Guest speakers Professor Bryant Garth and Professor Joyce Sterling with Dean Makau Mutua and Professor Errol E. Meidinger.

Bryant Garth, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, and his co-investigator, Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, were in Buffalo on Nov. 8 to update administrators, faculty and students on the “third wave” of their ambitious survey called the After the J.D. Project.

If law were such a great profession, Bryant Garth said he was once told, somebody would have done a longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers.

Well, Garth said, we’re on top of that.

Garth, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, and his co-investigator, Joyce Sterling of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, were in Buffalo on Nov. 8 to update administrators, faculty and students on the “third wave” of their ambitious survey called the After the J.D. Project. Their presentation, sponsored by SUNY Buffalo Law School’s Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, was called “Data, Polemics, and Panics: The After the J.D. Project and Legal Education Reform.”

The “Panics” in the title was there, Garth said, simply to provide one lesson: Don’t panic. Amid much talk about the shrinking legal job market, their numerical surveys and in-depth interviews with attorneys around the country have found a high degree of satisfaction and few regrets.

About 40 people packed the Cellino & Barnes Conference Center to hear an update on what Professor Errol E. Meidinger, director of the Baldy Center, called “some of the most important research going on these days regarding legal education and the legal profession.” The After the J.D. Project, sponsored by the American Bar Foundation, looks at the careers of almost 5,000 lawyers who graduated from law school in 2000. The researchers have surveyed these lawyers three times, in 2002, 2007 and 2010, and have done 32 in-depth, in-person interviews.

Garth and Sterling based their remarks on the most recent survey, assaying lawyers’ feelings about their chosen career and asking whether such factors as amount of education debt, law school ranking and type of practice made these lawyers more or less satisfied with their careers.

One striking fact was that a lot of lawyers move into a different type of practice than they started in. “After 12 years of practice, more than 90 percent of the respondents are not in the same job they began their careers in,” Sterling said. About four job shifts during that time was the average. In addition, though the largest segment began their careers in small firms, that proportion fell over time, with more going into solo practice and into corporate counsel positions or other non-legal business positions.

Looking at the respondents’ law school grades, the researchers found that higher grades generally translate into more income over time. They also found gender differences in their results, noting that women were less likely to have been named a partner in their firms and less likely to be equity partners.

On the issue of student loan debt, which many have said is causing potential students to shy away from law school, the researchers found that nearly half the respondents had no debt remaining a decade after graduation. They noted that graduates of Top 10-ranked schools had more debt at graduation than those at lesser-ranked schools, but seem to be able to pay it off more quickly. African-American and Hispanic lawyers, they said, also tend to have higher remaining debt.

What makes for a satisfied lawyer? Garth and Sterling looked at factors including the balance of personal life and work, amount of travel, level of responsibility, control over how they work, intellectual challenge and compensation. The best predictors of satisfaction, they said, were high salary, being African-American, being over 40 and working as a practicing lawyer. Factors that reduced satisfaction included having more than $100,000 in debt at the time of the 2007 survey and, interestingly, being from a law school that ranked from 11th through 20th nationwide.

Overall, career satisfaction clustered around 4 on a 5-point scale.

“One of the things you always find,” Garth said, “is that those who have come farther have the most satisfaction – those who have changed the lives and the lives of their children,” for example first-generation lawyers.

On the question of whether the third year of law school is superfluous, the popular assumption is that the third year mostly benefits large-firm lawyers, Garth said, but the After the J.D. Project found the opposite: women and lawyers in small firms, as well as graduates of lower-ranked schools, tended to place a high value on that third year.