Faculty Post: The Outcomes Assessment Project

By Emily A. Spieler, Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law

In 2012, while I was the dean of the law school, Northeastern launched its Outcomes Assessment Project (OAP) — an initiative to evaluate the impact of the unique Northeastern program on our students and graduates

Drawing upon rigorous social science methodology, the OAP seeks to improve the Northeastern program and legal education more generally. We want to develop a better understanding of the relationship between the law school experience and lawyers’ career paths, civic engagement, and overall personal and professional satisfaction. We are particularly interested in asking these kinds of questions: how did the unique Northeastern program, including co-ops, affect the way in which our graduates approach the practice of law? To what extent has our longstanding emphasis on serving the public interest had an impact on our graduates? How do our alumni – from recent graduates to experienced lawyers – differ from other law school graduates? And then – what can we learn from this study that will help us to improve the Northeastern experience and education for our current and future students?

Northeastern is alone in seeking to use rigorous study design to evaluate its program. No other law school is engaged in this kind of in depth analysis of its program. Integral to our goals is potential impact on the rest of legal education: We are interested in giving the rest of the legal academy – and the legal profession – a more realistic, evidence-based analysis of what does and doesn’t ‘work’ in legal education.

The OAP is utilizing several different research approaches. You can read in depth about it on the OAP website. We have undertaken a thorough review of Northeastern and other law student responses to the national questionnaire called the Law School Survey of Student Engagement. Our research team has utilized structured questionnaires, focus groups (with current students and with graduates), in depth interviews of randomly selected alumni/ae, and finally an extensive questionnaire that was sent to all of our graduates. This questionnaire utilizes many questions from a national survey called After the J.D., in order to allow us to do careful comparisons of Northeastern alumni to a national longitudinal study of lawyers.

We are still in the process of analyzing these data. What have we learned so far? Here are some initial findings:

  • Co-op definitely matters. As reported in OAP Research Bulletin #3, co-op results in more self-aware and deliberate career planning, improves practice skills and deepens professional identity. After four co-ops, 92% of students reported that co-op altered their career plans and influenced their choice of law school courses.
  • Northeastern is a national law school. Research Bulletin #2 summarizes the data on where Northeastern graduates practice: the majority of Northeastern graduates work outside of Massachusetts, with at least one graduate in every state.
  • Northeastern graduates work in every imaginable practice setting. According to Research Bulletin #1, while Northeastern graduates are distinctive for high rates of working in the public interest and public service sectors (32.7 percent of Northeastern law graduates go into these fields, compared to 19.7 percent nationally), private practice remains the largest practice setting, employing almost half of our graduates.

The alumni/ae survey was just closed at the end of 2014, and we will now be embarking on an analysis of these data as well. As the Faculty Director for this project, I am eager to see the results and to apply them to our thinking about legal education here are Northeastern. Since this law school reopened in 1968, we have been on the forefront of innovative approaches to legal education. We are now in the forefront of careful evaluation and strategic planning for the future.

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