Two of the major problems confronting the legal profession today are increasing rates of job dissatisfaction and the persistent problem of encouraging lawyers to work in public interest settings. These two problems are actually connected in an important way. Researchers have found that lawyers earning the highest salaries, typically in large law firms, are also the most dissatisfied with their profession, while lawyers working for government agencies, public interest organizations, and educational institutions are among the most satisfied. In other words, encouraging more law students to enter public service law could address both the problem of unhappiness in the profession and the underrepresentation of disadvantaged people with legal needs. Indeed, by reconnecting the legal profession with the notion of service to society, a professional ethic that seems to have disappeared in recent decades, we may be able to improve the profession more broadly for its own sake and for the positive impact it can and should have on society at large.
In this essay, I examine why and how so many law students who have no intention of working at a firm or are interested in public interest as they begin law school end up accepting offers from large firms upon graduation. To address this paradox, we must understand the logical processes law students use in making their career decisions, and how these process may be flawed or biased. Recent findings in behavioral economics, which show the limits of rationality, shed light on this question. In particular, behavioral economics shows us that people have bounded willpower, bounded rationality and bounded self-interest, which all serve to encourage behavior which is not strictly self-interest maximizing, as that concept is understood in traditional economics.
In this article, I argue that law students have shown bounded willpower, bounded rationality and bounded self-interest in this context. I divide this essay into three parts. In the first part, I address this question by looking at the bounded willpower, bounded rationality, and bounded self-interest of law school students. In the second part, I look at the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of different ways law schools have responded to the limited rationality shown by students, in particular public interest requirements and loan forgiveness plans. In the final part, I make suggestions for ways of addressing this issue, in light of the lessons learned from the first two parts.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Haas, Aaron S., "The Rationality of Law Students' Career Choices" (2006). Harvard Law School Student Scholarship Series. Paper 8.
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