The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) has published a special report detailing changes in law student engagement since its first survey in 2004. Students at more than 203 law schools in the US, Canada and Australia complete the survey. Only two Australian law schools currently participate, making comparative conclusions difficult. But the report highlights relevant to Australian law schools, including data on how many law students want to be lawyers.
What is the LSSSE?
The Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research publishes and administers the survey. It tracks a series of measures related to law student engagement and satisfaction. For example, it asks students how often they re-draft assignments or attend class without reading. It also asks about their relationships with peers and teachers as well as their job expectations.
It’s these last two items that make for interesting reading.
Since the first survey in 2004, law students’ job expectations stayed pretty stable. In 2004, 49% expected to work in private firms. Smaller numbers expected to work in business (11%), government (9%) or public interest groups (5%). The balance (26%) expected to work in ‘Other’. In 2019, the proportions were almost identical. Students expecting to work in private firms fell slightly (45%), and the other categories all rose slightly.
Anecdotally, we know that not all Australian law students become lawyers. The Council of Australian Law Deans publishes data on how many law students graduate. The number is significantly smaller than media panic about there being ‘too many law students’. How many law students want to be lawyers might even get smaller if we don’t count students who don’t expect to be lawyers. There are various guesses at how many law graduates choose another career ranging from half to two-thirds, but there is no reliable data.
We need to be cautious about making comparisons given the small number of Australian law schools participating. Still, the LSSSE suggests that at least a quarter of students don’t expect to be lawyers. If we apply this to the number of Australian graduates in 2018, the total number of law graduates expecting to find law-related jobs falls from almost 8,500 to a little more than 6,000.
Declining relationships with peers?
The LSSSE also asks law students about their relationship with peers. The survey asks students to rate their relationships with peers on a scale of 1 (‘unfriendly, unsupportive, sense of alienation) to 7 (‘friendly, supportive, sense of belonging’).
In 2019, 76% of respondents rated their relationship with peers at 5 or higher. That’s a good result and suggests that peer-to-peer relationships are generally positive. But since 2004, there is a gradual decline in respondents’ positive feelings about their peers from a peak of 81%.
Part of the explanation for the decline is the gradual increase in the number of law schools participating in the survey. More respondents tend to flatten out peaks and troughs in data. In light of increasing concerns about law student wellbeing, a slide toward ‘unsupportive’ relationships or alienation from peers is concerning. It also tends to correlate with anecdotal accounts of increasing individualism and competition in Australian law schools.
Again, we need to be cautious about drawing conclusions given the small Australian contingent. But the LSSSE’s data on relationships with peers provides an invitation for empirical research into at least one factor that might feed into law student wellbeing.