Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Public Interest 101: Using the Law School Curriculum to Quell Public Interest Drift and Expand Students' Public Interest Commitment

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

Public Interest 101: Using the Law School Curriculum to Quell Public Interest Drift and Expand Students' Public Interest Commitment

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, the legal community has called on law schools to bolster their commitment to serving their communities and to engaging law students in public interest and pro bono work.1 Despite this directive, research on the employment patterns of recent law school graduates consistently indicates that only a small minority of new lawyers embark on a public interest law career path. Each year, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) surveys recent law school graduates to, in part, obtain information about "the employment experiences of new law graduates."2 The NALP survey of the 2010 graduating class found that of the employed graduates, two-thirds worked in either private practice or business (50.9% and 15.1%, respectively).3 In contrast, only 6.7 % of employed graduates held public interest jobs.4 This distribution of initial career decisions is consistent with previous NALP data. Of the 2009 employed graduates, 55.9% worked in private practice, 13.5% worked in business, and 5.7% worked in the public interest sector.5 Similarly, of the 2008 employed graduates, 56.2% worked in private practice, 13.4% worked in business, and only 5.4% worked in public interest.6

These survey results demonstrate the stark disconnect between the seemingly widely accepted goal of producing public interest lawyers and the dearth of law school graduates who opt to embark on these careers.7 In response to this situation, bar associations,8 law schools,9 and professional legal organizations10 have steadily called for law school-based efforts to both encourage law students to pursue public interest careers and to remove existing barriers that may prevent students from pursuing these career paths. The role of legal education in creating public interest lawyers is particularly important given the "various studies undertaken during the past thirty years [showing that] although a great deal of . . . graduates enter[] law schools with aspirations of engaging in public interest work following graduation, few actually do so."11 Scholarly literature has coined the term "public interest drift" to describe this observed phenomenon of law students' declining interest in pursuing public interest careers between their entry into law school and graduation.12 As Part I discusses, the legal community has devoted a great deal of attention to attempting to identify the factors contributing to drift,13 but less emphasis has been placed on whether particular efforts or influences exist that might serve as "bulwarks" against drift.14 Much of the driftwork finds that the law school environment plays a pivotal role in both exacerbating and, importantly, potentially mitigating drift. With regard to factors that might exacerbate drift, several authors have explored the effect of the traditional law school curriculum on law students' public interest commitments. They find that law students participating in the traditional law school curriculum experience disengagement "from the ideals that originally motivated them to pursue public interest work" in part because law school teaches students to "value the hierarchy of a law firm over a public interest career."15 With regard to factors that mitigate drift, authors have identified the need for support for public interest work in the law school environment. Participation in public service activities, non-traditional law school programs, or both has been suggested as providing the "subcultural support" needed to counter driftby reinforcing law students' initial public service values.16 While references have been made to the exacerbating effect the law school curriculum can have upon drift, little attention has been given to whether law school courses could be used as a bulwark against driftby demonstrating the value that law school administrators and faculty place on public interest work (by officially endorsing such courses in the curriculum) and by specifically providing subcultural support for students seeking public interest careers. …

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