Law student with laptop conversing with professor/mentor.

Student Academic and Career Advising Reimagined

By Susannah Pollvogt and James Leipold

When formal legal education in the U.S. first coalesced and the Langdellian method was developed at Harvard University in the 1870s, law school was for the sons of lawyers. That is not the world we live in now.

In our current roles with LSAC’s Legal Education Consulting team, we have the privilege of walking the hallways of law schools across North America, and we see every day the extraordinary diversity represented in today’s law schools. As LSAC reported in December, for the third year in a row, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported the most racially and ethnically diverse entering law school class in history.

Even as we celebrate this broad diversity, we must continue to push for academic success, bar passage, and employment for all students. Law schools have an absolute obligation to support students at every step along their legal education journey, and at this moment, that support cannot viably be the sole responsibility of non-faculty professionals. And yet that is often the case. Career development professionals, academic support professionals, and those in Student Services frequently bear a disproportionate share of the advising workload. This is true despite the fact that ABA Standard 404(a)(2) includes academic advising among the core responsibilities of faculty members.

At the most successful law schools, responsibilities for academic support and advising, professional identity formation, career development, and employment outcomes are shared by the whole law school. In fact, the cultivation of that “whole law school” culture is critical to meet the many challenges faced by law schools in today’s complex environment.

Today, we have a better understanding of the unique strengths and challenges our law students bring to the table—many are first-generation students, many are minoritized students, many have been diagnosed with some sort of learning disability or other neuro-divergent condition during their education and have received some accommodations along the way, to cite just a few examples. Many have experienced some COVID-era learning gaps. While law schools have traditionally thought about academic support and bar preparation support as something necessary for a small portion of the class, it is increasingly common for law schools to realize that a much larger percentage of students need this kind of support—often more than half the class.

One way of sharpening this point is to ask: Who is the student we hold in our mind when we think about the curriculum and our obligation to guide students through it? If we are imagining the son or daughter of a lawyer—someone familiar with legal education and the legal profession—we are getting it wrong. To maximize the impact of our guidance, we need to imagine conveying information about the challenges of legal education to a first-generation student who has no prior exposure to law school and its conventions. That is the starting point. Modifications can be made from there based on the student’s individual profile.

From the perspective of the academic support professional, it is not humanly possible to provide meaningful, individualized guidance on learning in law school to all the students who need it. But let’s pose a counter-factual hypothetical where your law school has a plethora of academic support professionals who can meet the needs of the entire class. That still doesn’t make siloing academic guidance right. Doctrinal courses make up the majority of the curriculum. Doctrinal faculty members have students as a captive audience throughout their three or four years in law school. If messages about academic skills, course selection, and bar exam preparation are important, they will appear in the doctrinal classroom and be announced by those who lead that classroom. Under this model, academic support personnel function as advisors to a small number of students who need the most guidance and also as internal experts who can provide insight and techniques to their faculty colleagues.

The NextGen Bar Exam will quickly force the issue. The new exam will test skills, doctrine, and professional identity in an integrated manner. This calls for integrating doctrinal teaching, practice and skills training, and professional identity formation throughout the curriculum. Again, academic support professionals and skills faculty already have experience with this type of integrated teaching and can lead the way for the rest of the faculty.

There is, of course, a continuum from admission through academic success and licensing, to job and career.  Students need support every step along the way—some more than others, and some at different stages than others. As with academic support, areas like professional identity formation, bar preparation, and the career development process all require the deliberate coordination and collaboration of many people. This effort must take place well beyond the career services office, and sometimes that is both counterintuitive and difficult as a practical matter. Many law schools operate as a series of siloes, seemingly of necessity. Everyone has their head down working as hard as they can to keep their part of the ship from taking on too much water. But it’s not efficient and it’s not effective.

In our experience, career and job outcomes are maximized for students when the head of the career development office, all the career and public interest counselors, the internship and externship staff and faculty, clinical faculty, doctrinal faculty, the dean of students office, and alumni and the alumni office are all working together. Different people connect with different students at different times and in different ways. There are many systems in place that provide many students with good pathways into jobs and careers, including the erstwhile OCI and the many great public interest programs and job fairs. 

But not all students succeed using those tools, and when they don’t, they often have feelings of embarrassment and shame, and they need to be reengaged in a meaningful way, and often their career counselor will not be the person with the strongest connection to a particular student. And, as the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) employment data has long made clear, law graduate jobs are obtained in every possible way imaginable, including through internship and externship experiences, through relationships with alumni often made through programs like speed networking and mock interview events, through relationships with faculty, and through students’ own initiatives and networking.

Law schools must, above all, have a sophisticated data tracking system so that they know where each student is on their career development journey, and can identify the students who need additional help and support. Some students breeze through the system and secure meaningful post-graduate employment with little effort, and other students struggle and may need deliberate interventions early in the 3L year, including an individual career development plan that may require a student to work with people beyond the career development staff.

There are lots of reasons to think about career development more holistically, including the fact that it’s the right thing to do, but there are also strategic advantages. Applicants scrutinize a law school’s employment outcomes more closely than ever, and employment outcomes now weigh more heavily in rankings outcomes than they used to.

Our team of experts at LEC is on call to help law schools up their games when it comes to not only admissions and enrollment management, but also academic support and advising, professional identity formation, bar preparation and support, and career development and job outcomes. Our current generation of law students, our most diverse ever, deserves whole-school-based support from admission through employment.

Susannah Pollvogt

Principal Consultant for Academics and Curriculum, LEC
Susannah Pollvogt is the principal consultant for academics and curriculum for LSAC’s Legal Education Consulting (LEC) group.

James Leipold

Senior Advisor, LSAC

James Leipold is a senior advisor with the Law School Admission Council. Prior to joining LSAC, he worked as the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C., for more than 18 years.