Q&A with Jeff Allum, New AALS Project Director for Before the JD
By Barbara Elenbaas
Jeff Allum, AALS Project Director, Before the JD
Jeff Allum currently serves as Project Director for Before the JD, a national study of potential law students, conducted by AALS, to understand the factors contributing to their intention/decision to pursue a JD or not.
Dr. Allum was formerly the Assistant Vice President of Research and Policy Analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) where he oversaw the CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment & Degrees and the CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey. He also supported the research components of several grant-funded projects on topics such as completion and attrition, career pathways, financial education, and inclusion and diversity.
Dr. Allum has worked and studied both domestically and internationally. His work has appeared in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Fortune, Kuwait Times, The New York Times, Politico, and Reuters, as well as a number of other media outlets and university newspapers. He holds an EdD in education policy from The George Washington University.
Get us up to speed on the Before the JD project overall.
Before the JD is an attempt to understand the factors leading potential law students to make the decision to pursue a JD or not. That includes understanding the array of other education and career alternatives they might be considering, as well as the sources of information from which their decisions take shape.
There has already been a lot of very good work put into the project thus far and we received positive feedback from the research firms we have been in touch with. We are confident that it will provide some useful answers to the legal education community upon completion.
What drew you to AALS and specifically to directing the Before the JD project?
I am particularly interested in understanding the interface between education and work, or education and the economy. I’ve been doing this kind of work for many years in a lot of different organizations, most recently at the Council of Graduate Schools. I was interested in looking at this issue of career pathways in a different and new domain, which is legal education.
As I’ve been working at AALS for the past couple of months, I’ve come to appreciate and learn about the situation legal education finds itself in. I knew anecdotally that enrollments and applications were down, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it was happening. You read in the newspaper about student debt levels, which can be very high not only for students who go to law school but also those who get masters and doctoral degrees. But I wonder if there are some other latent explanations that we haven’t found yet.
I want to get beyond student debt and employment rates as explanations and find out what else we might not be thinking about. Maybe this generation just isn’t interested in doing the work that lawyers do. Perhaps they don’t know enough about what lawyers do. Maybe they’re interested, but want to do it in a different way or in a different venue. It could be that there’s something about the legal profession or legal industry that we haven’t understood before.
I’m really interested and excited to see what I can do to serve the AALS mission to advance excellence in legal education. I’m growing to appreciate the nature of the problem and the importance of legal education, not just for the legal profession, but for society as a whole.
Tell us about your previous role at the Council of Graduate Schools.
I was the Assistant Vice President of Research and Policy Analysis, overseeing two large annual surveys of enrollments, admissions, and degrees. One was general and the other was specific to international graduate students.
I also supported the research components of a lot of CGS’s grant-funded projects. I developed surveys to help us understand issues relating to completion and attrition, and I conducted focus groups with underrepresented minority doctoral STEM students to find out what was happening on campus to help them succeed. Those were my primary responsibilities.
Prior to that, I was at the American Chemical Society, where I led what was probably the largest employment survey of its kind at the time. It went out to about 90,000 chemists nationwide to get a sense of where they got their education, where they’re working, what their salary is, and other related information.
What parallels do you see in the challenges facing legal education and graduate education?
The surplus issue is certainly one in certain doctoral programs—in STEM fields and in the arts and humanities. Some make the argument that there are simply too many PhDs being produced. The flip side to that is that maybe they’re just not being fully utilized. Maybe the workforce hasn’t caught up to the type of education they’ve already achieved. That’s one parallel.
Another one has to do with access, diversity, and inclusiveness. From what I gather, certain populations are still underrepresented in legal education and the legal profession. That’s also true in many PhD and master’s programs as well. The extent to which we can explore why that is and what can and should be done to expand the population is another parallel that I see.
A third is the nature of education delivery. There are important conversations happening on this—I’m thinking specifically about online courses. How is that shaping higher education in general as well as legal education in particular?
I also think that this question gets to a bigger issue, beyond law and graduate school. I think the United States is in an “in-between” place in every way—politically, economically, environmentally, socially. Take the case of human capital: Education and career pathways just don’t quite play out the way they used to but we don’t exactly know what the future holds. Traditionally, if you wanted to be a teacher or a truck driver or a lawyer, there used to be obvious pathways for you to get to those points—career paths were fairly linear and jobs would be there.
What we’re seeing now is this new era in which career pathways, and the education and training required to manage them, are in a stage of mass deconstruction and reconstruction. Many jobs and career pathways—even in the professions—are evaporating, and we really don’t understand what’s next. In the legal profession, one scenario is that artificial intelligence may be able to assume the burdens of “lower-skill level work” carried out by any type of legal professionals, thereby allowing attorneys to more fully put their education and experience to use in solving the most challenging problems that we face. But this is just one of many scenarios. It has huge implications for the education and training of up-and-coming legal professionals, and it also makes me wonder: Is that something that’s playing in the minds of millennials as they search for careers? We just don’t know. What resonates with college students and recent grads is what we need to find out.
What prior experience do you bring to AALS that will particularly benefit the Before the JD project?
There are a couple of things: I have done similar research in terms of why individuals pick certain education programs and careers. When I was at the American Chemical Society many years ago, I did this work with community college students. I conducted a survey to see why they chose the field of study they did and why they got into those careers. It was similar work as I described at CGS, talking with hundreds of PhD students via focus groups about why they chose a particular field and school and what they hope to get out of that.
I’ve also managed research firms before. At the American Chemical Society, I managed a big project with the Harris Interactive. Harris did the research but it was my job to find them, get a proposal from them, to manage the project and make sure they were doing the work that needed to be done.
You have served as a principal investigator and managed external research firms. How are the two roles different?
I think that’s very important. At CGS, my staff and I did the research, but at ACS I largely managed research. I think it’s important to have experience both in the kitchen, cooking the food, and at the front of the house, managing the operations of the restaurant—seeing both sides of how things work. I like to think my hands-on research experience makes me a better manager because I know what to look for as an outside firm begins to produce deliverables. Managing will also help me connect to the big picture and help AALS think about research in general.
What will you look for as you choose a firm?
Certainly experience. A team that has experience in this domain, with people who know something about higher education and surveys. There are plenty of firms who do great market research but don’t know anything about higher education. In many ways, the very task of identifying and contacting potential law students will be one of the most challenging aspects of this project, one that will require both experience and creativity.
I’ll also be looking for creative ways that they can help share the findings of these results, some of which we believe might be newsworthy as well as useful for the law schools and prospective students. We’ve already agreed that a manuscript or report is going to be one product, but I’ll be looking for firms that can also provide materials we can use for online and social media, including data visualizations.
As someone that has overseen similar studies regarding graduate schools, how can leaders use this information to better understand prospective students?
I hope this information can be used to advance legal education. Through the process of understanding the expectations and concerns of potential students, law schools can strengthen legal education and the profession.
I hope this process helps give law school deans, as well as legal professionals, information they can use. I also hope the information we learn can also clarify and dispel some myths about the legal profession, and cast light on aspects of law school that prospective students might be interested in. I figure there are a lot of people who may be socially-minded, who want to do good things and exercise their passion, but, for whatever reason, decide that law school is not their path. I hope what we learn from this study can help create new paths to law school and legal education that we haven’t thought about before.