Law School Placement Reports – the Annual Drill

The market for law school graduates seeking employment as lawyers is not great. It has not been great for several years. There is growing and strident literature arguing about the prudence of attending law school and the operation of law schools. The issue is whether the costs and sacrifices involved with attending law school are worth the various and sundry benefits of a law degree.   I’ve blogged on these matters in the past. Brian Z. Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools is a lengthy discussion of the matter. Blogs such as The Law School Tuition Bubble, Law School Transparency and many, many others add to the discussion at length.

This summer, the National Association of Law Placement, the professional association of folks who help law students find jobs as lawyers, released preliminary results of its annual study of law school placement.  That release sparked publication of some articles on topic.  Jordan Weissmann published in article in Slate, “Apply to Law School Now!”  A blog, that I think is popular with younger lawyers and law students, Above the Law, published a reply written by Joe Patrice, “The ATL Markup Of Slate’s ‘Apply To Law School Now!’” and Weissman responded to his critics in “Now Is a Great Time to Apply to Law School.”

For students thinking about law school or their advisors, the articles are worth a read. In “Now is a Great Time,” Weissman refers to a study by Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, “The Economic Value of a Law Degree”   From my perspective, the important points of the Simkovic-McIntyre article are: their assertion that the median increase in earnings due to a law degree is $32,300 per year (p. 17), that the median value of a law degree (net of the costs of attending law school) is $610,000 (p. 41) and that law students are “disproportionately drawn from college majors associated with relatively low earnings and likelihood of obtaining employment at college graduation” (p. 25).

The Simkovic-McIntyre article has both critics, such as Brian Tamanaha, and defenders, such as Bruce Leiter, and there has been a lively and somewhat acerbic debate.  The article uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) and from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), but in different ways.   The NELS data are used to rule out or limit claims that the main results are due to a selection effect or bias.  The issue is this: People who attend law school are different from people who do not attend law school in at least one respect: the choice to attend law school.  High-achieving – perhaps from well-heeled families – high school students choose their undergraduate colleges and majors with an eye toward law school and then choose to go to law school and become lawyers.  Regardless of whether they attend law school, these ambitious students from auspicious backgrounds might well do better than typical holders of a baccalaureate degree in terms of life-long earnings.   So, it’s hard to say how much of law school graduates’ earnings relate to the degree itself versus ambitious propensities of students who – historically – have been inclined to attend law school.  After examining the NELS data, using the available statistical controls, the authors suggest only “modest ability sorting” through the law school selection process. (p. 30)

The argument of Simkovic-McIntyre article is that the earnings benefits accrue to holders of a law degree.  They test their central claims using SIPP data. Those data are collected in contacts from the same individuals over multiple years (typically 3-5).  So, rather than following the earnings of individuals over the course of their entire career, the analysis looks at an array of individuals at various stages in their careers, and in a sense, extrapolates to the career of a typical or average person.  The problem in using this thick cross-sectional data is an ability to distinguish between maturation benefits that accrue from having a law degree versus generational effects that benefitted on set of lawyers at one time in history. The significance of this typical problem in using cross-sectional data is exacerbated by the structural claims of law school critics: that the market for legal services (and the need for lawyers is changing).  Simkovic-McIntyre are aware of those claims: They assert that in their view misguided predictions of structural change in the practice of law and its effect on the income of lawyers are nothing new and should be dismissed; (pp. 36-37). They also draw on a third collection of data, the American Community Survey, and observe the data from that study are consistent with their principal findings.  The problems of newly minted JDs finding work, they assert, stem from weakness in the broader economy. (p. 36)

What do all of these results mean for academic advisors – especially academic advisors of political science students?  First, the job market for recent law school graduates is less bad than it has been, but, as with many segments of the economy, the job market for lawyers is still not good.  

Second, a good deal of the writing about job prospects for lawyers and benefits of a law degree are done by people with “skin in the game.”  While their experiences do give those writers a particular leverage and insight on the matter, I do wonder how much of the work is an apologia.

Third, the Simkovic-McIntyre study does offer some leverage of the question about the value of a law degree, but I am unsatisfied with several aspects of the study.  As I think on the study, the problem of selection bias looms large. To be sure, determining how much of the difference in the respective life courses stems from characteristics shaping the opportunity to and initial choice (to enter on the law school track or not) and how much stems from the particular costs and benefits of a law degree is no easy matter to determine.  That only three out of five holders of a law degree choose to work as lawyers (p. 6., n.7) – and on average still enjoy the financial benefits of a law degree — suggests to me that something other than legal education is shaping the results about income benefits of a law degree.  Put a different way, it’s hard to see topics or skills taught in law school lead to such a result. (If the argument is the rigor of a law school education – that’s not an argument for law school – it’s an argument for more rigorous education.)

The study’s refusal to consider other graduate degree holders is a shortfall of the study.  At least part of the benefit in the past about a law degree has been the relative absence of other choices for many students; my hunch is that the rise of specialized MBA degrees and many other masters degrees cuts against some of the benefits of a law degree.  Surely, that change in availability of professionals with other educational degrees to do tasks once done by lawyers is part of the structural change in the practice of law.

The study’s reliance on thick, cross-sectional data to make a point about the structural dynamics of the practice of law builds in assumptions about the structure of the practice of law at the time the cross-sectional slice was cut. In particular, it assumes that what went on before the cut and what will go on after the cut are pretty much the same as what happens during the cut.  Do I really think that the experience of practicing law for the Great Generation has been the same for Baby Boomers, and Members of Gen X, Y, Z or Alpha?  No. I do think the world is changing. How much it has changed is hard to see, but I do not believe that the economics of practicing law in the next fifty years will work as it has for the past fifty years. 

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