Drifting Law Students: Public Interest Caught in the Law Firm Pipeline

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Sturm College of Law


Public interest, Legal ethics, Legal profession, Sociology


You often hear it as a sort of gallows humor among lawyers: “I came to law school to save the world, and then I sold out to make money.” Indeed, survey researchers have consistently shown that many incoming law students express preferences for nonprofit and government jobs but then experience a “public-interest drift” during law school, whereby they instead decide to pursue positions in private law firms. This phenomenon has increasingly presented an empirical puzzle. While we may generally assume that students are simply making financially motivated decisions, quantitative studies have suggested that debt and salary do not substantially explain this drift. Some researchers have instead pointed to the law school socialization process where lessons in amoral, apolitical, and unemotional legal reasoning may steer students away from public-interest career ambitions. Other commentators portray students becoming more aware during law school of the prestige hierarchies of the bar and the constraints of the public-interest job market. Meanwhile this entire inquiry into public-interest drift has been challenged by skeptics who speculate that incoming law students offer deceptive responses to surveys, exaggerating their public-interest career commitments due to a social desirability bias (a desire to be seen as a do-gooder).

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