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16 April 2006


William Henderson


Regarding your query on how to facilitate more empirical research on the legal profession, alumni dataset can be amazing resources.

Michigan Law School's is undoubtedly the best; it covers approximately three decades of Michigan Law graduates. Moreover, because it was funded by public sources, the data is available to non-Michigan researchers. Using this dataset, my colleague, Ken Dau-Schmidt, and Marc Galanter are completing a remarkable longitudinal study on women in the legal profession. (They will be presenting the results at Law & Society in July.)

At Indiana, which is a slightly different cohort than UM, we have several years worth of data on our graduates. The first study on the careers of our alumni is forthcoming in the Indiana Law Journal. See Dau-Schmidt et al., 'The Pride of Indiana': An Empirical Study of the Law School Experience and Careers of Indiana University Law Alumni, on SSRN here: http://ssrn.com/abstract=875908

In a great 1999 article in the Journal of Legal Education, David Wilkins, who runs the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, wrote that it was educational malpractice to not educate our students on economic and social realities on the law practice; further, it was our duty to generate the needed empirical research. Wilkins observed that "every law school can begin to study its own graduates. ... [L]aw schools collect an enormous amount of information on their students and alumni. Virtually none of the data is systematically stored, analyzed, or made available to students, alumni, or faculty. Consequently, students know almost nothing about what their careers are likely to look like five, ten, or fifteen years after graduation." Wilkins, The Professional Responsibility of Professional Schools to Study and Teach About the Profession, 49 J. Leg. Educ. 76, 94 (1999).

Getting these projects off the ground requires a lot of thankless work. But it permits us to leave the world of anecdote and create knowledge on the legal profession. Moreover, this type of research can be used to craft educational policies and practices that actually work. Bh.

Albert Yoon

Dear Geoff,

Thank you for your response.

I have done some research on the area of federal judicial tenure, and it is certainly an interesting area to explore. With much of the attention historically devoted to the Supreme Court, political scientists and legal scholars are now turning their attention to other Article III judges (see Giles, Hettinger and Peppers, Epstein and Martin), as well as some state courts.

If we hypothesize that judges are political actors, we can explore factors that influence how judges decide cases. For example, in the context of state courts, Rick Brooks has recently explored whether judges decide cases differently when they are up for election (they do).

Judges are a relatively easy segment of the legal profession to study, since we can identify the class of judges and read their opinions. But the judiciary still poses a challenge for empirical work: it is hard to find information on certain federal judges (e.g., magistrate judges, who do an increasing amount of the trial work) and certainly state judges (e.g., harder to find published opinions).

There are so many interesting (at least to me) questions about practicing attorneys. For example, what types of jobs do law graduates pursue after graduation, and how does that change over time? What is the retention rate of graduates in the legal profession, and how does that vary over graduates? Do attorneys compete on price to attract clients for contingency cases, or do they operate a de facto cartel?

At one level, these questions are directly about the legal profession, but they also can touch upon substantive areas of law (e.g., the role of contingency fees is embedded in most discussions of tort reform).

Your question - how to move the study towards non-judicial practitioners - is a good one. Given the paucity of private data, and the reluctance of government agencies to release such data, one needs to be creative about gathering such information, perhaps for prospective studies.

I have made small efforts to do so in some of my research (e.g., I interviewed senior federal judges to discuss the effect of pensions and senior status on their tenure), and I would be interested to hear ideas that you - and others - may have on this matter.


Albert Yoon

Geoff McGovern

Albert, one of the areas of the legal profession that I have been looking at is the career track for federal judges (although, I think state judgeships allocated by appointment can also be subject to empirical work). My interest tends toward the role of legal education and the biases in favor of elite school graduates. More significantly, however, some fine work has been done looking at the the alternative methods of judicial selection and into the role of the president in selectiing federal nominees (Binder and Malzman 2002; Bonneau and Hall 2003; Johnson and Roberts 2004; Segal 1987). I don't at all suggest that judges are the only segment of the profession that can be empirically examined. But a groundwork has already been set down. How can we move the study toward non-judicial practitioners?

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