From Idealists to Hired Guns? An Empirical Analysis of “Public Interest Drift in Law School

Journal Article June 2018

One promising policy recommendation that follows from these findings is to give first-year students more information about legal careers and more opportunities to reflect on professional identity. Such curricula may lead to better sorting of law graduates into practice settings where they are more likely to be satisfied and effective.

Recent commentaries on American legal education have questioned whether law students are prepared to seek out satisfying, public regarding, and financially viable careers in a changing profession. To these debates, this Article offers an empirical perspective on how students approach job-path decisions during law school. I address this issue through a five-year multi-method study of a subset of the law student population — elite-school students who state preferences for jobs in the public-interest sector at the beginning of law school but by their second year decide to pursue positions in large private law firms. A widely circulated hypothesis in popular and academic discourses suggests that implicit lessons of the first-year curriculum steer these students away from public-interest career goals, inducing a widespread “public interest drift.” However, skeptical commentators have speculated that the survey findings showing this drift phenomenon may be inaccurate and exaggerated. This Article responds to the skeptical position by empirically exploring the descriptive limits of the drift effect through a qualitative study of students’

John Bliss, From Idealists to Hired Guns? An Empirical Analysis of “Public Interest Drift” in Law School, 51 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1973 (2018).