Walking the Path of the Law: How Law Graduates Navigate Career Choices and Tolerate Jobs that Fail to Meet Expectations

Document Type



Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender




If one talks to law students about the their career expectations, one is likely to hear a common story: when the student graduates, she plans to go into private practice, or possibly take a government job, or even less probably, take a public interest job. The students think their initial choices of legal jobs set them on a career trajectory that is fairly immutable. However, the students' beliefs may not be based on actual information about how lawyers choose their career paths.

This empirical study of 2800 lawyers who graduated from law school between 1970 and 1999 analyzes whether lawyers have standard career trajectories. The study considers whether gender or time of graduation affects career choices. The study also examines whether there are dominant reasons that lawyers give for changing jobs. Finally, the study considers whether lawyers are satisfied with their jobs by using a unique measure that gauges the level of congruency between lawyers' hopes for the kind of job they have with their actual experiences of a job.

Consistent with other empirical studies of lawyers' career paths, this study finds that a large number of lawyers start their careers in private practice, and that most lawyers will change jobs a couple of times, with most staying within the same practice setting (i.e., moving from private firm to private firm.) However, this study challenges other well-held notions of career trajectories. Notably, this study does not find that women leave the law more than men, nor that women enter government or public interest work more than men. Further, the study documents that women and men both experience conflict between the demands of their jobs and their responsibilities outside work, and that both are equally concerned about that conflict. In other words, male lawyers say work-life balance is as concerning for them as it is for female lawyers.

Finally, the study refutes the widely-held belief that lawyers do not like their jobs. The study provides law students and the profession with an important reminder that there is not a "right" career path, nor an immutable one, and that much of the practice of law is engaging and rewarding.