College students' reasons for attending law school focus on public service and opportunity to make a difference, report shows

Public-spirited factors lead the list of reasons for considering law school among undergraduates in the United States, according to “Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School,” a new report on student perspectives on legal education that is based on a survey by Gallup for the Association of American Law Schools (AALS). The survey found that undergraduates considering law school report their top reason is to pursue a career in politics, government, or public service. Other top factors include being passionate about the work, an opportunity to give back to society, and to advocate for social change. The ability to qualify for a high-paying job and the prestige of being a lawyer both rank lower on the list of 15 factors.

More than 22,000 college students and over 2,700 law students completed the survey which captured details on their career aspirations, sources of information and advice, and academic backgrounds. The report also explores demographic differences in survey respondents by gender, parental education, race/ethnicity, and academic achievement.

“This is the first known study in more than 50 years of undergraduate views on law school,” said Judith Areen, Executive Director of AALS. “It is our hope that this report will be useful not only to law schools and aspiring law students, but to everyone who cares about law and justice. We all have a stake in the quality of the next generation of lawyers and judges.”

Surprisingly, the survey found that more than half of law students first considered law school before college, and one-third before high school.

The report also includes important findings about first-generation college students. The connection between parental education and college enrollment has been widely recognized in higher education. According to the most recently available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about one-third of college students nationwide are first-generation. “Before the JD” shows that only one-fifth of undergraduates considering law school are first-generation.

A similar gap is also evident when considering advanced degree holders. Nationwide, according to U.S. Census data, only 12 percent of individuals age 45 to 65 (typical age range of parents of college students) have an advanced degree. By contrast, “Before the JD” found that half of undergraduates considering law school have at least one parent with an advanced degree.

The report concludes, “... it will take deliberate effort on the part of law schools to level the playing field for qualified applicants, particularly if they are the first generation in their family to graduate from college.”

Additional highlights from the report and ordering information can be found at