Law school graduation is a critical turning point in the early career of legal professionals. Going to the public sector or to private practice marks two distinct career tracks, in both common law and civil law jurisdictions. However, research on legal education and the legal profession usually focuses on either a lawyer’s law school experience or her legal career after graduation, with little effort to capture this key moment of transition. Even recent studies aimed at bridging the gap, such as the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD study or John Bliss’s research on the professional identity of law students, have not yet analyzed law students’ professional or political orientations at that crucial moment, right before their graduation.
Kathryn Hendley’s new article on Russian law graduates helps fill in this gap. Based on a 2016 survey of 2,176 prospective graduates from 163 law departments or faculties across the vast territories of Russia, Hendley shows that law students who plan to go to state service and private practice markedly differ in terms of their support of state policies, attitudes toward courts and lawyers, as well as opinions on political cases. This is a remarkable study, especially considering the difficulty in obtaining empirical data in authoritarian regimes like Russia. It suggests that lawyers’ professional identities, political orientations, and career choices have deep roots in their educational years. In other words, early career choices and professional/political values go hand in hand. Those law students who are more supportive of the regime and the courts are more likely to go into public service. By contrast, law students who choose to start their legal careers in private practice, such as law firms and in-house legal departments, often are more skeptical about the state as well as the moral standards of lawyers.
One rarely studied group of law students that Hendley’s survey successfully captured are the so-called “correspondence students,” i.e., those students who study law part-time. Correspondence students are generally older; they tend to come from less privileged family backgrounds; and they often combine their studies with a full-time job. To be sure, part-time legal education widely exists in the United States and many other countries, yet this group of law students has received little scholarly attention so far. As Hendley’s analysis suggests, although full-time law students and correspondence students are quite different in their socioeconomic backgrounds, when it comes to their attitudes toward law and the judicial system, the two groups show notable convergence. Yet there is a sharp difference between law students and the general Russian population on those attitudes. Very few law students displayed the “legal nihilism” omnipotent among ordinary citizens in Russia.
In terms of career aspirations, correspondence students have stronger preferences for the state sector, as compared to their full-time counterparts, though, for both groups, more than half of the survey respondents expressed aspirations for state-sector jobs, such as prosecutors, judges, and criminal investigators. Not surprisingly, law students from Moscow or St. Petersburg, the two largest cities in Russia, are significantly more likely to aspire to a career in private practice than students from other regions, as the private sector is more developed in metropolitan areas. Among private-sector jobs, corporate lawyer is not a choice as popular as advocate (advokat) or in-house counsel for both groups of students. A plausible reason is that the corporate legal sector in Russia is much smaller than that sector in Britain or the United States and not many law graduates would find employment in it. Furthermore, the percentages of law students who were “unsure of career plans” or had “no plans to work as a lawyer” are notably higher for correspondence students than for full-time students.
In addition to the variations between full-time and correspondence students, another striking finding of this study is about law students’ political orientations. In particular, law students who have stronger beliefs in democratic principles, who regard lawyers as having high moral standards, and who see social change as a primary motivation to study law are significantly more likely to desire to work in private practice after graduation than other students. This finding suggests the possibility that, even in authoritarian regimes, liberal and democratic ideals still drive law students’ career choices and their relations to the state. As Terence C. Halliday and I have shown in our study of Chinese criminal defense lawyers, there is often an inverse relationship between lawyers’ political liberalism and political embeddedness, that is, those lawyers who have stronger connections to the state are less likely to be politically liberal or to challenge state power. What the Russian case shows is that this differentiation between politically liberal and politically embedded lawyers starts as early as in law schools—politically liberal law students are more drawn toward private practice and less likely to begin their careers in the state sector. In contrast, those law students who aspire a career in the state sector, especially the criminal justice system, are already less liberal in law schools. Or, in Hendley’s words, “rather than learning to be prostate on the job, they come to state service with strong prostate sympathies.” (P. 163.) This orientation can be clearly observed from their more supportive attitudes toward the guilty verdicts of political cases such as the trials of the rock band, Pussy Riot, and the activist lawyer, Aleksei Naval’nyi.
The implications of Hendley’s rigorous and groundbreaking study are profound, for not only the legal profession in Russia, but also lawyers in other legal jurisdictions or political regimes. It shows the importance of the state in structuring, not only the bar, but also the system of legal education, especially in authoritarian contexts. In contrast to Heinz and Laumann’s classic “two hemispheres” of the Chicago bar, which distinguished lawyers based on client types, in many authoritarian regimes, the state overshadows clients as the key external force that shapes the social structure of the legal profession. Furthermore, the study also suggests that professional socialization in law schools not only leads to different career paths for law students, but also contributes to their distinct political orientations. Most civil law countries have multiple legal professions with various degrees of proximity to the state (judges, prosecutors, advocates, in-house counsel, etc.), and law students are socialized into these professional roles partially according to their political beliefs. This political dimension of professional socialization is often overlooked in existing studies of legal education. Whether it is nature or nurture remains an intriguing question for future research.