Not even a day after learning that David Graeber thinks there’s infinite demand for corporate lawyers, writer Matt Bruenig adds himself to the list of liberals who believe that lawyers are cheaters who get a free lunch while in the real world law graduates are joining the unemployment line. The kicker is that Bruenig himself just graduated from Boston University School of Law.
I’m uneasy criticizing a recent law grad—and I don’t think I’ve ever done it before—but Bruenig’s callousness toward the unlucky in his cohort utterly shocks me.
Responding in The Week to the recent Chemerinsky/Menkel-Meadow NYT op-ed, he writes:
In reality, reducing barriers to entering the legal profession would probably have very little effect on quality, while also blowing up one of the biggest upper class rackets in our society.
In 2012, the median income for lawyers in this country was around $113,000, more than triple the national median income for all occupations. Why such high pay? In significant part, it’s because we have made becoming a lawyer exceedingly difficult, which has the effect of driving up the prices lawyers can charge for their services.
The link is to, of all places, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, which says that competition for lawyer jobs will be “strong” due to too many law grads. This is a good indicator that legal services are traded under free market conditions. I’ve seen law professors blatantly (and probably self-servingly) miss that line—but never a law grad. As with other liberals who’ve made similar arguments, Bruenig obviously rejects marginal product theory, the possibility that “lawyers” is a very broad occupational category with wage variation among specialties (which even the BLS link says), or the hypothesis that demand for legal services is income and wealth elastic.
Equally disappointing are the neophyte factual errors he makes in the next paragraph about the prelegal education requirements for a law license.
To gain entry into the legal profession, you must acquire a four-year undergraduate degree, a three-year law degree, and then pass a state bar exam. These onerous credentialing requirements ostensibly act as a gatekeeper, filtering out lower-quality would-be attorneys until we are left with only a small pool of supposedly highly competent lawyers from which to hire. But by keeping this pool small in this way, lawyers are able to capture credential rents — surplus income far above what they might otherwise make. This is good for lawyers, but bad for everyone else.
Filtering out lower-quality would-be attorneys? Tell that to all the law schools that are accepting anyone with an LSAT score and a pulse to keep Moody’s from downgrading their bond ratings.
Contrary to Bruenig’s assertions, according to the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (pdf), 30 states do not require would-be attorneys to have college degrees to sit for their bar exams, including Massachusetts where Bruenig received his JD. The ABA accreditation standards (Standard 502 (pdf)) do require law schools to admit students who’ve completed at least three-fourths of a bachelor’s degree (with exceptions allowed), but one can become a lawyer in Massachusetts without attending an ABA-accredited school, e.g. the Massachusetts School of Law. (It’s possible that MSL requires students to have bachelor’s degrees but that’s a different issue.) I should also note that Wisconsin grants law grads from its two ABA schools diploma privilege in lieu of taking the bar, an idea Iowa is thinking of adopting. (Update: I forgot to mention that foreign law school grads are allowed to sit for the bar in Massachusetts under certain conditions. Pretty hard to engineer a shortage when that’s allowed.)
Despite being a deregulated market, Massachusetts lawyers don’t earn substantially less than lawyers do nationally.
(Source: BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, which excludes self-employed lawyers, but I dare you to include them and see if it falsifies my point)
Simply put, if someone really wants to become a lawyer without the expensive, extraordinary signaling power Boston University provides, it can be done, just not necessarily in every state, but even then some states will allow reciprocity anyway.
Citing Erwin Chemerinsky’s $350,000 salary, Bruenig then argues that the legal profession is such a scam that the rents spill over into the legal academy. (Amusingly, even Chemerinsky and Menkel-Meadow in their op-ed acknowledged that rising faculty salaries are a problem.) More likely than legal profession rents, legal academia is in student-debt-fueled bubble that’s deflating. Take away the federal loans and Chemerinsky (or at least law professors generally) will have to take a pay cut. Lawyers would be unaffected.
Bruenig then has the chutzpah to write: “The big scandal in all of this is not that law students are somehow getting a raw deal because of the debt they undertake in their arduous path through the credential gate. It’s that the whole system wastes a ton of money that could be spent on more useful things than lining the pockets of lawyers and law professors.”
Tell that to the 5,229 class of 2013 graduates who reported being “somehow” unemployed as of last February. Many of these people are unlikely to be collecting rents from anyone in their lifetimes.
Bruenig’s proposal, though, is partly correct: Yes, needless lawyer licensing requirements should be reduced, but no, legal services won’t be any cheaper.
I thought about letting up on Bruenig a little given that he pretty much bit his thumb at his chosen profession and his own law school within months of leaving it. Then I read some of the comments where some people challenged him on his errors, and his responses (they appear to be under his name and are consistent with his article, but you can never be sure with the Internet) are flat-out contradictory and simply breathtaking:
I really hope someone was impersonating Bruenig in that comment thread because if he really wrote them—and my intuition says he did—it proves my point. It’s not the million-dollar-law-degree profs or conservatives who think law students should be held to higher intellectual standards than the After the JD researchers. It’s the liberals who are willing to throw law school debtors under the bus to prove their loyalty to the poor they consider deserving. If you go to law school and it goes south, mainstream liberals will not defend you because your poverty credentials won’t be good enough.
You will be alone.