At the ABA’s midyear meeting in early February, the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation presented the preliminary culled findings from the third wave of the “After the J.D.” study (AJD), according to the ABA Journal.

That study tracks a robust sample of more than 3,000 people who passed a bar exam in 2000 after graduating from a wide variety of law schools, including some that were unaccredited. This cohort was first surveyed in 2003 (AJD I) [ PDF], again in 2007 (AJD II) [ PDF] and, most recently, 2012 (AJD III).

The good news to be gleaned from the latest batch of preliminary findings: On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being highest, respondents gave the statement “I would go to law school if I had to do it all over again” an average rating of 4.91. Those queried gave relatively higher ratings to questions about whether they felt attending law school had been a good investment and whether they were satisfied with their decision to become lawyers.

The not-so-good news is that as of 2012, only a minority of respondents were still in private practice, and roughly one in four had left the practice of law entirely (by contrast, most respondents were in private practice in 2003). Moreover, the gap in median full-time earnings between graduates of elite law schools and those who earned their degrees at less reputable schools had widened considerably, as had the gap in earnings between graduates of nonelite schools based on GPA.

Reading the ABA Journal’s account of the presentation, especially its comparisons to the AJD I findings, might lead one to conclude that although those who passed the bar in 2000 are doing fairly well today, they didn’t escape the Great Recession’s effects lightly. In truth it’s hard to say how the financial panic affected the AJD cohort until more data become available, but the available evidence shows that the attrition process was in effect as of 2007—an indication that the legal market’s structural problems had already begun to surface by then.

Somewhat surprisingly, the lead AJD researchers viewed the second batch of data produced by the study more optimistically. In a paper titled “Buyer’s Remorse? An Empirical Assessment of the Desirability of a Lawyer Career” (“Buyer’s Remorse”), those researchers argue against the belief advanced by some legal academics that law students suffer from “optimism bias” that leads them to take on excessive debt to attend law school on the expectation that they will find high-paying jobs in the legal industry. After the reality of the legal job market sets in, supposedly, the students come to regret their decision.

To summarize: In “Buyer’s Remorse,” the researchers offer several reasons to be wary of the optimism bias hypothesis.

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