Jeff Allum has been leading the Before the JD project for AALS since 2016 as a consultant with a broad background in higher education research and survey project management. He has now joined AALS full-time as the association’s first Director of Research, continuing the work of the Before the JD project as it nears completion and delving into additional legal education research projects. AALS News spent a few minutes with Jeff discussing the position and future research projects at AALS.
Welcome officially to AALS. Can you talk about your position and your goals?
As the Director of Research, my goal is really quite simple: to provide evidence-based insights to help support AALS member law schools and their faculty, deans, and administrators. By extension, that includes the students who are considering law school, students who are in law school, and graduates who have gone on to have careers in the legal profession and elsewhere. Anything I can do to bring evidence to inform legal education issues and decisions, I hope I can do that.
Can you give us an update on the Before the JD project?
Before the JD is national study of undergraduate students and first-year law students to understand the factors contributing to their intention/decision to pursue a JD or not. I’m pleased to report that the project remains on time, on schedule, and on point. The project successfully fielded two large surveys this past fall. Gallup was contracted to conduct the work and a survey of undergraduate students went to more than 200,000 students at 25 universities and colleges around the country. It generated over 22,000 survey responses. We were hoping to get about 3,000 responses and we received seven times that. There was a parallel survey that went to 44 law schools across the country, and that survey generated a little over 2,700 responses. We were hoping to get around 1,000 law student responses, so we are excited that our goals for this were exceeded as well. Gallup is sorting through lots of data, and they are drafting a report that will be released sometime over the summer.
What are some ways schools will be able to make use of the results?
Amongst other areas, we think that the results will help law schools better communicate with potential and current law students so they better understand how legal education aligns with their career aspirations. The survey collected information on what factors contribute to a student’s decision to go to law school. This will be useful to admissions professionals and pre-law advisors to help them understand what students are looking for in an advanced education, including a law degree. We also asked about the sources of information students use to make decisions about pursuing graduate and professional degrees in general, including a JD. Are students hearing from parents? Professionals in the field? Advisors? Faculty? Those are the questions that we’ve had for a long time, and Before the JD will be able to provide some answers.
Can you tell us a little more about the announced collaboration with LSAC regarding pre-law advisors?
This collaboration was inspired, in part, by some work related to Before the JD. As we were thinking about the student survey questions, we also wanted to know what pre-law advisors thought were some of the factors that contributed to a student’s decision to go to law school. We did a small pilot survey of pre-law advisors associated with two regional pre-law advisor associations (SAPLA and SWAPLA) and presented the findings at one of the regional pre-law advisor meetings last fall.
That gave us the idea to work with LSAC, because they have a long history of working with this group and we thought there could be a great opportunity to help strengthen the relationship with pre-law advisors even further.
Can you tell us a little more about the pilot survey of pre-law advisors?
This was a small pilot survey, but it did reveal some interesting things. When we asked pre-law advisors what they thought contributed to the decision to go to law school, they indicated that students are passionate about change and want to make a difference. The advisors also stated that students are motivated by earnings and prestige and perhaps a career in law will provide a better salary than other options they have considered. The advisors also indicated that students decide to attend law school because a member of their family is a lawyer or has a strong interest in them pursuing a career in law.
We also asked pre-law advisors what factors might be dissuading students from going to law school and the number one reason given was the cost of obtaining the degree. Another dissuading factor was this sense of a “reality check.” In other words, undergraduate students might initially think about attending law school, but as they reflect on their academic record, LSAT scores, or the length of time it takes to get the degree, they find that they don’t really have the passion to put in the time and effort that one needs to go to law school.
Those were two big categories of findings that we learned, and with our partnership with LSAC, we hope to expand this survey to all pre-law advisors across the country and learn even more.
I imagine there are also some answers from the pre-law advisors survey that you would want to compare to the Before the JD answers from college and law school students.
There will certainly be parallels. If we learn from Before the JD, for example, that students seek out information about law school from one primary source—such as family members—but pre-law advisors think that students are getting most of their information through the internet, that might highlight a gap we can explore further. Once this work is done with LSAC, we would like to have a conference or workshop where we can bring in pre-law advisors, leaders from law schools and talk about the results.
What sort of research do you hope to conduct beyond Before the JD?
It can go a lot of different ways, and I think it’s safe to say that one of the driving factors will be the AALS membership’s needs and desires. If, say, there’s a real need for faculty to understand more about curriculum innovation, or degree completion or attrition, then we can possibly conduct research in those areas. We’re going to really have to listen to the membership. We are also going to have to find funding and resources for these projects. There are foundations, organizations, federal agencies, and others interested in these topics, and if we can align their interests with those of AALS members, then we have an opportunity.
I also want to make a point that Before the JD will not end once we issue a report over the summer. It’s very common for research studies like this to release a final report with lots of fanfare, and then the project ends. We would rather the project live on for some time. We want to write a couple of additional reports. One might be aimed at university presidents or provosts to talk about more generally why students are going to graduate and professional school. That could be one interesting piece. We would also like to have a second report that’s focused on the general public—something you might read in your local daily newspaper or other media outlet.
But we also hope to customize selected findings to specific audiences that might be interested in them. We might commission papers or short research briefs on behalf of others with a focus on specific topics. We could also write short papers on, say, the factors contributing to going to law school as viewed through a particular demographic such as first-generation college students. We also think there could be an opportunity to license parts of the dataset to scholars in the field. There are PhDs and doctoral students all over the country doing research on these kinds of topics. Through a licensing arrangement, we might be able to give them an opportunity to conduct some research on their own. Before the JD generated a massive database, and we can’t expect that everything can be reported in our first report.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I’m delighted to be here. It’s a very exciting time for AALS and the field of research. We’re on the cusp of some potentially significant changes, ultimately for the better. It’s exciting to be a part of it and working for the benefit of law schools and legal education.