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The first national study designed to measure how engaged students are in law school revealed that most are happy with their schools, but they are not satisfied with the help they receive finding a job. The importance of that caveat was underscored by something else disclosed by the survey. More than half the students surveyed rack up debts of at least $60,000 by the time they graduate. Half pronounced themselves “unsatisfied” or “very unsatisfied” with the support the schools provided in their job searches, and the satisfaction level plummeted the closer they got to graduation. There was plenty of good news for law schools in the report, issued earlier this month. More than 80% of the students rate their experiences “good” or “excellent.” Nearly as many said they would “probably” or “definitely” choose the same school. More than three-quarters said that their schools emphasize the ethical practice of law. Forty-two law schools and 13,000 students participated in the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, modeled on a similar survey of undergraduates launched in 2000. Schools with fewer than 500 students paid $3,000; those with more than 1,000 paid $5,000; and those in between paid $4,000, according to Patrick O’Day, the project manager of the research team, which is based at Indiana University. As of last week, 37 schools had signed up for the 2005 survey-17 were participants in 2004. The deadline is Jan. 21, O’Day said, and the numbers are ahead of last year’s pace. He expects 45 to 50 will participate this year. This month’s report analyzed the aggregate data without breaking it out by school. (Schools were promised their results would remain confidential.) The schools received individual results last August, and some have already implemented changes in response. For example, questions about how much contact students had with people of different backgrounds resonated with Allen Easley, president and dean of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. The school already had concerns about this issue, he said, and the survey spurred them to hire another employee in their multicultural affairs office. On the other hand, the results bore out his belief that students share the school’s strong commitment to pro bono. Still, he doesn’t think the school will participate again for the next couple of years. “It’s expensive,” Easley explained. “I view the value of the survey as creating a benchmark for us.” In three years, “we can see whether we’ve improved.” The complaints about career counseling hit home with David Walker, dean of Drake University Law School. The survey identified a special weakness in the first year, so 10 days after the data arrived-and three weeks before the students did-all entering students were assigned faculty advisers. The initiative was well received, he said, and he didn’t stop there. “Career counseling should extend beyond faculty advising,” Walker said. He hired a consultant, appointed a committee and reached out to alumni for help. The school also purchased software to assist students in their job searches. The survey is a springboard for dialogue, Walker said. “It’s a vehicle for discussion with faculty, with students, with alumni about how you can be better.” But it doesn’t function in a vacuum, and it often confirms what administrators already suspected, said Matthew Diller, associate dean of Fordham University School of Law in New York. “Most of the stuff we knew,” he said. Yet prudent administrators seek information from a variety of sources, and it’s valuable to look at the issues “from a student’s point of view.” But it isn’t always easy to know what to make of the data. “It’s difficult to tell how much the survey is reflecting the job market,” Diller noted, “and how much it’s reflecting the law school’s services.” O’Day said greater participation would push the project past the break-even point and provide participants with more data from comparable schools. But some of the 150 schools that didn’t participate are clearly looking at the bottom line. “The cost was greater than the benefits,” Matthew Spitzer, dean of the University of Southern California Law School, wrote in an e-mail. Had his school joined, it would have cost $3,700, he said, “and we felt that we could get the information, internally, in a more tailored fashion, and for less money.”

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