State Bar of California Analyzes “Public Interest Drift” Among Law Students as a Component of the California Justice Gap Study


By Madeline Rojer

At the State Bar of California Board of Trustees’ January 23, 2020, meeting [Agenda item I], the staff presented key findings of the first-ever California Justice Gap Study, which gathered data on both California’s public civil legal needs and the amount of legal resources available to California’s public, as well as the results of a law student survey.

As one objective of the Justice Gap Study, the Bar analyzed whether the cost of legal education impacts law graduates’ decisions to pursue a career in public interest law and whether a loan repayment program would increase access to justice. The Justice Gap Study’s law student survey portion gathered data from approximately 2,500 California law students to track what the Report describes as “public interest drift”—when a law student goes to law school with the purpose of pursuing a public interest legal career and then leaves law school pursuing a legal career in another field.

According to the Public Interest Drift Findings, the current public interest drift is 49%.  Essentially half of the students who go to law school with the purpose of pursuing a public interest career ultimately choose to pursue another career. According to the findings, the number one self-reported reason for public interest drift is that students need to make more money than public interest jobs pay because of educational debt. In American Bar Association accredited law schools in California, 81% of law students graduate with a median of $147,000 in law school debt. Black and Latinx law students have disproportionately higher debt. The study also showed that students who had drifted from their original plan to pursue a public interest career had 40% more debt on average. Not only is significant law school debt weighing on students, but a majority of students also did not have confidence in their respective law school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP) or the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, for which recent reports indicate that less than 2% of all applications were approved as of July 2018.

The Report contains a regression model of the data which estimates factors that might reduce public interest drift. According to the model, drift would drop to 39% if educational debt decreased, down to 33% of law students felt confident in their law school loan repayment assistance programs and the federal student loan repayment program. The drift would drop even further down to 27% of law students held internships at public interest law firms.

Based on this analysis, the Report concludes that initiatives to reduce law school loan debt and improve student confidence in debt assistance programs are critical to mitigating public interest drift, as is promoting and supporting internships in public interest organizations.

At its March 12, 2020 meeting [Agenda item 701], the Board of Trustees voted to adopt staff’s recommendations to approve updating the 2017–2022 Strategic Plan to include additional access to justice objectives in light of the California Justice Gap Study, and add the following objectives to Goal 4 of the Strategic Plan: Support public education about key problems not recognized as legal issues, and support efforts to attract and retain lawyers in legal aid organizations.


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