Do law students “drift” away from public-interest career goals during law school? This widely discussed “public interest drift” has been framed as a pervasive and distressing problem both for social justice causes and for the self-realization of aspiring public-interest lawyers. The dominant explanation in the literature suggests that students are converted from public-interest idealists to amoral hired-guns for any cause through an intensive socialization in the Socratic 1L classroom. However, this view has largely drawn on anecdotal evidence and polemical perspectives.
John Bliss, Former CLP Research Fellow and current Assistant Professor at the University of Denver presents the first systematic empirical study of students’ identity-processes and job-path orientations throughout the law school timeline.Drawing on an innovative five-year multi-method qualitative research design consisting of interviews, ethnography, and identity mapping in an elite-school context, Bliss presents evidence that contradicts both fundamental premises of the dominant public-interest drift narrative: that first-year students tend to transition from set public-interest ambitions to set corporate-law ambitions; and that the 1L curriculum re-wires students’ orientations toward professional identity. Instead, Bliss argues that larger shifts in job and identity orientations occur in 2L.
Bliss’ data suggest that the narrative- and identity-work that students undergo during law-firm interviews leads them to reconstitute themselves in alignment with their often negative views of corporate lawyers. This revised socialization timeline suggests that legal education might not forcefully induce a widespread public interest drift. Nevertheless, Bliss’ research argues that these findings point to a sharp critique of the standard 1L curriculum for omitting an education in legal career paths and professional identity.
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