So much for the theory that most aspiring lawyers are chasing a hefty paycheck.

A highly anticipated new survey of thousands of undergraduates and first-year law students found that the top four most-cited reasons for pursuing law school are: providing a pathway to a career in politics, government or public service; having a passion and high interest in legal work; creating opportunities to give back to others; and the desire to be an advocate for social change.

The study, “Before the J.D.: Undergraduate Views on Law School,” commissioned by the Association of American Law Schools, found that access to high-paying jobs was the fifth most-cited reason undergrads are interested in law schools, with 31 percent placing it among their top three reasons for seeking a law degree.

“I find this truly encouraging,” said Judith Areen, executive director of the AALS. “I was presently surprised with all the publicly spirited factors as reasons for going to law school. In a difficult time in our nation’s history, it was encouraging.”

Areen acknowledged that rancor in Washington, D.C., may have boosted those responses—the students were polled in the spring of 2017—but she said current events alone can’t explain the strong interest in public service that respondents reported.

The robust public-interest motivation of aspiring law students is among a trove of data in the study. The law school consortium hired the Gallup Inc. to poll undergraduates about their views on graduate degrees generally and law schools specifically, as well as gather data on the amount of information they get on campus about law school, what factors they weigh in whether and where to apply, and how early they begin to think about getting a law degree.

“Before the J.D.” is based on responses from more than 22,000 undergraduates at 25 campuses, as well as nearly 2,800 first-year law students at 44 law schools. Among the significant findings:

  • Half of the undergraduates considering law school have at least one parent with an advanced degree, despite the fact that only 12 percent of people between 45 and 65 nationwide have such a degree. Put another way, applicants from economically privileged backgrounds comprise a disproportionate amount of the law school applicant pool.
  • Undergraduates who are interested in an advanced degree report seeing more information on campus about master’s degrees, Ph.D.s and masters in business degrees than about law school, and say their college professors talked about those programs more than a law degree.
  • The overall cost of a law degree and poor work-life balance were the reasons cited most often by undergraduates for potentially not going to law school, and the three-year length of J.D. programs was another common deterrent.
  • Location was the most important criterion for choosing a school, according to the first-year students. But the other criteria shifted according to Law School Admission Test scores. Those with scores of 165 or higher were more concerned with the status and prestige of campuses, while respondents with lower scores weighed bar pass rates and overall costs more heavily.
  • Law school comes on the radar of many students quite early. More than half of law students begin thinking about law school before they get to college, and a third consider it even before high school.

The study is the first major look at undergraduate attitudes about law schools in more than 50 years, and the three-year project was born out of dire circumstances—namely, the 38 percent decline in applicants to law school between 2010 and 2015. (The applicant pool for the 2018 admission cycle actually grew 8 percent, the first significant increase in seven years.)

The AALS, as well as other project sponsors, including the National Association for Law Placement; the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar; the Law School Admission Council; and AccessLex Institute, wanted to better understand the path into law school. They hope schools will use the data to improve outreach to undergraduates, position their curriculum to meet the aspirations of students, and bolster efforts to diversify law campuses.

“One of the things that was a surprise to me was how early people are making decisions about graduate school,” said Donald Tobin, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, who read an advanced copy of the report. “Law schools do a lot of pipeline programs, but I don’t think we do enough with middle school and high school students. What can we do to make sure high school students know more about the law?”

The new study creates an opportunity for law schools to work together to reach potential students early on, Tobin said, since launching those initiatives individually can’t have the same national impact. He cited the Street Law program, which brings legal education into middle and high schools with the help of participating law schools and others, as a model.

The fact that relatively few undergraduates report hearing much about law degrees, in comparison with other advanced degrees, suggests that law schools should be proactive about having their faculty teach undergraduate courses, Tobin said. That exposure serves as an advertisement for legal education.

“There aren’t that many lawyers on college campuses,” he said. “There are lots of Ph.D.s and MBAs, but we don’t have that kind of presence on college campuses. That seems important, and we need to find ways in which we can engage with undergraduates.”

“Before the J.D.” contains plenty of good news for law schools. For one, the proportion of undergraduates considering law school is larger than the number of people who actually graduate from law school. Among undergraduates considering an advanced degree, 15 percent said they are looking at a law degree. And law school draws interest from a relatively high percentage of undergraduates with grade-point averages of 3.0 and above, as compared with the grades of undergraduates interested in other advanced degrees, which skew lower.

But Areen said the finding that economically advantaged students dominate the applicant pool is troubling, especially at a time when law schools and the legal professions are trying to diversify, with limited success.

“We think it’s an important message we’re sending to law schools,” Areen said. “Lots of law schools, faculty, and deans want to have a level playing field, but they have to make more of an effort. “What are you doing to connect with and support students who don’t have a parent with an advanced degree?”

The study found that family is the primary source of advice among undergraduates interested in law school—60 percent reported that as the top factor—offering further evidence that applicants with highly educated parents enjoy an advantage.

The report is designed to give law schools enough detail about undergraduate responses that they can draw conclusions about their own applicant pool based on factors such as LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages, Areen said. For example, schools that draw students with higher LSAT scores can see that those students are more concerned with the campuses’ ranking and reputation as well as the quality of the faculty and are far less concerned with cost. Those with LSAT scores below 153, however, weigh cost, bar pass rates, and location more heavily than high scorers. All respondents placed significant weight on graduate employment rates, however.

“This give schools the opportunity to say, ‘Who is coming in?’” Areen said. “’Do we have enough clinical programs? Do we have enough classroom programs that address the questions that are uppermost in their minds?’ That’s the kind of analysis I hope law schools will be able to go through.”