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Does Legal Education Have Negative Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being


Lawrence S. Krieger


Florida State University College of Law

Kennon M. Sheldon


University of Missouri at Columbia - Department of Psychological Sciences

September 2002

FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 65

Abstract:     
The legal profession is reportedly facing significant problems, manifested both in decreasing overall professionalism in the field, and in decreased health and well-being among individual lawyers. Research on law students echoes the findings among practicing lawyers, documenting similar problems of elevated emotional distress and substance abuse. While commentators often propose that legal education may be the common source of some of these problems, there is little empirical research that directly or causally links factors within legal education to the observed symptoms, nor has there been theory-guided research into these questions. In a previous paper Professor Krieger proposed, based largely on the theories of Maslow, that the dominant beliefs and practices in legal education thwart natural human needs for growth, personality integration, and internally-based motivation and values, potentially explaining many of the negatives noted among law students and lawyers. In this study of new law students, we sought to begin identifying possible root causes of the many problems in the legal profession, by investigating whether changes in values or motivation occur during the first three semesters of law school and, if so, whether such changes correlate directly with changes in well-being and life satisfaction. We also examined the relative emotional health and life satisfaction of pre-entry law students, to determine whether law student selection is biased towards those with predispositions to distress and unhappiness.

Results generally confirmed the hypotheses concerning negative changes in values, motivation, and well-being. Students began the first year with levels of subjective well-being (SWB) higher than a comparison sample of undergraduates and equal to a sample of new professional nursing students, but by the end of the first year their SWB had plummeted. These changes were correlated with sample-wide increases in external motivation and decreases in intrinsic motivation over the first year, and were also correlated with increases in appearance values and decreases in community service values. Based on previous research, each of these changes would in fact predict decreased happiness and life satisfaction. In addition, students with the most optimal ("intrinsic") motivations attained the highest grades, but ironically, high grades in turn were correlated with shifts in career preferences - towards lucrative and higher-stress law careers, and away from "service-oriented" careers which research would predict to produce greater satisfaction. Limitations and suggestions for future research are noted, and implications for legal education and the profession are discussed.

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Date posted: October 21, 2002  

Suggested Citation

Krieger, Lawrence S. and Sheldon, Kennon M., Does Legal Education Have Negative Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being (September 2002). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 65. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=328960

Contact Information

Lawrence S. Krieger (Contact Author)
Florida State University College of Law ( email )
425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States
850-644-7262 (Phone)
850-644-5487 (Fax)
Kennon M. Sheldon
University of Missouri at Columbia - Department of Psychological Sciences ( email )
112 McAlester
Columbia, MO 65211
United States
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