Law School Cuts Its Tuition to Zero (and Other 509 Report Errata)

Students at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School were surprised to find their tuition was free for the 2014-15 academic year.

Free Tuition!

Such generosity!

That’s the most amusing error in the law school 509 Information Reports I’ve found thus far. The ABA doesn’t audit the data law schools provide it, so people using them might want to know when it’s obviously incorrect. I’m tallying up the ones I find, but I won’t do so exhaustively. I figure the ABA just runs a program that spits all the data into the reports automatically, so I’ll confine my teasing to the schools for the mistakes.

Atlanta’s John Marshall is one of two law schools that have tuition problems. For those curious, looking on John Marshall’s Web site I get $38,100 in tuition costs, $198 technology fees, $1,340 for health insurance, and $194 in student bar association costs ($39,832 total). This is largely consistent with its charges last year ($39,578).

Another law school with a tuition typo is St. Mary’s, whose 509 report says it charges $33,100 for resident and $33,110 for non-residents, a patent ambiguity that doesn’t make sense for a private law school. Worse, when I look at its Web site, I get $33,010 ($32,340 for tuition, $670 for fees). That’s the number I’m going to go with.

Readers might also be curious about law schools’ enrollment breakdowns. I don’t track the ethnicities of full-time and part-time students, but I did do get their totals as well as the genders and ethnicities of 1Ls, total enrollments, and graduates. These numbers usually add up across the table, but there are a few cases that I’ve found that don’t.

The biggest offender is SUNY-Buffalo, which accidentally totaled its male and female students in its “Other” column (a new addition to the reports this year) instead of the “Total” column. This causes significant arithmetical errors that end up doubling the school’s enrollment over the year before. I have SUNY-Buffalo with 547 full-time students, 10 part-time students, and zero “other” students.

The tables for San Francisco and Minnesota also do not total properly due to problems in the “Other” column. As I have it, San Francisco has 425 full-time students, 102 part-time students, and no “other” students (by enrollment, not gender). Minnesota has 681 full-time students, 17 part-time students, and zero “other” students (ditto).

It’s unclear, but I think most law schools that used the “other” category meant it for gender and enrollment status while these schools had one category but not the other.

Hopefully these errors will be corrected either by the law schools or the ABA.

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While I have your attention, I thought I’d spill the beans on where undiscounted tuition costs went this year: pretty much nowhere. The median private law school charged about $200 more than last year in real dollars, but costs are moving up slightly on the very high end while nominal tuition cuts are manifesting at the low end of the scale. I can’t make a clear determination at this point, but anyone thinking that legal education is moving toward a two-tier market—one for cheaper law schools, the other for very expensive prestigious ones—might see this as year 1 for their hypothesis.

Full-Time Law School Tuition Dispersion (Excl. P.R., Constant $)

I suppose now’s the appropriate time to congratulate Columbia for being the first law school to breach the $60,000 mark. 23 others charge more than $50,000 annually, many of them are in U.S. News‘ top 20. In 2010, only three charged so much.

The next chart shows the overall slowdown of tuition cost growth over the last few years and the nominal declines within the lowest quintile.

Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Increases by Tuition Quintile Mean (Current $)

I haven’t done a full analysis yet, but I think only Iowa has seen any direct correlation between nominal cost cuts and an increase in applications (and that’s a public law school). The rest still saw declines.

Peace out.

The End Is Near for Many Law Schools

…The end, that is, of the matriculant crunch that blights them.

(What, you thought I was going to predict widespread school closings? Haha, no.)

The accelerated (sure surprised me) release of law schools’ Standard 509 Information Reports, aka/fka the Official Guide, allows us to peer into the world of law schools as they are this very semester. Like, you can see them delaying their finals on account of grand jury verdicts … in real time.

No. The first finding is that there were 33,426 full-time law school matriculants this fall, down a paltry 1,247 from 2013. Last year, the drop was 2,621, hence this post’s title. (These figures exclude the three Puerto Rico law schools, which applies throughout this post.) I’d like to take this time to apologize for teasing you on Wednesday with one law school’s 90 percent full-time matriculant decline since 2004.

Part of the matriculant stabilization might be attributable to a slight uptick in acceptance rates.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

Click to enlarge

Emphasis on the “might,” for it’s a very slight change in the trend, unlike 2013, but it does correspond to a similar budge in matriculant yields (omitted).

In general, though, the distribution of the matriculant collapse since the last trough years (1999 and 2007) is about the same as last year. I shan’t display that analysis now, but it’s still true that about 10 percent of the law schools account for half the total decline since 2007, which is probably the best comparison and not 2010, which was a peak year.

As for the number of full-time applications, you can see the accelerators are being hit at all levels:

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Application Growth Rates

This year, about 20 percent of law schools saw a growth in applications. First place goes to Case Western, which rallied from 1,200 applications last year to 1,913 this year, leading to a 46 percent increase in matriculants. Iowa saw a similar growth in its incoming class size after its application count nearly doubled. Penn State also saw some growth. I’ll have to look into the role that nominal tuition cuts play, but maybe they’re more successful than I thought. I just don’t think anyone should expect them to cause a Black Friday rampage by new applicants.

Nevertheless, probably the most interesting story this year is the surge in applications at most of the members of U.S. News and World Report‘s 14 highest-ranked law schools—as well as four of the remaining six of the top twenty. It’s really remarkable. Fourteen of these twenty schools contributed 1.39 percent against the -7.56 percent application growth rate. (Those stats are additive.)

The phenomenon is fascinating because it demonstrates that applicants interpreted a message (from somewhere) as saying that reputable law schools are worth applying to while most of the rest are not. More than even the law school tipping point between late 2009 and early 2010, I can’t recall ever seeing evidence of such discrete thinking on the part of applicants.

An admitted weakness with the LSTB is that it’s not as good at measuring inputs as outcomes, so I can’t tell you whether this behavior is due to a particular article on a news Web site, advice from guidance counselors or others, or some kind of forum. It might be multiple concurrent causes. Regardless, the now-is-the-best-time-to-apply-to-law-school-ever crowd might be able to take credit for directly influencing potential law school applicants’ actions, though I read their advice as telling people that it was also okay to be the number one pick at a respected non-elite institution. Thus, it might not be those writers. Possibly, the applicants, whom I’ll call “surplus applicants,” interpreted those messages more conservatively than their authors intended.

But was “apply to only elite law schools” a successful strategy? My first cut says that it was a waste of time for many surplus applicants because highly ranked law schools are not desperate for applicants with good credentials.

Here’s a table of surplus full-time applications, offers, and matriculations between 2013 and 2014 at the 14 out of 20 U.S. News‘ top law schools that saw application increases.

2014 T20 Surplus Applications Table

Click to enlarge

The odds of getting into one of these schools as a surplus applicant are not as good as the typical applicant was last year, assuming these schools used the same acceptance strategy this year. Only 12 percent of the total were accepted, but the ratio of surplus applications to surplus matriculants is 28, which is much higher than the ratio for all top 20 law schools in 2013 (16-17). Consequently, we can infer that many surplus applicants were rejected.

Of course without the now-is-the-best-time-to-apply-to-law-school-ever message, presumably the number of applications at these schools would have continued to fall or not fall by as much, so it depends on where you think the baseline for the first surplus applicant should be set. Anyway, more research might illuminate the issue, but the pushback in favor of law school appears to have gotten all the benefits it can. Prestigious law schools just aren’t changing their behaviors.

I should also note that some of these schools, such as Georgetown and Columbia, scorned their applicants as they came out of the woodwork. One strategy that might be developing, or, rather, receiving more scrutiny, is prestigious law schools rejecting many applications while accepting transfers instead. If you take a look at Georgetown’s 509 report, you can see that the 113 tranfers it took in (about 6 percent of its 2014 enrollment) came from dozens of schools. The list of origin schools goes on for a page and a half! As growth (decline) in applicants becomes less relevant, focusing on distribution will. My cursory look into the matter has found that some schools have a taste for for-profit law school refugees, e.g. Arizona State from Arizona Summit.

Other oddities I noticed: One, not all highly ranked law schools did so well. UVRollingStonebotchedrApereporting lost 815 full-time applications, and Minnesota lost 751. I could be convinced that these are typos in their thousand digits, but if not it’s peculiar that these two highly regarded schools would contribute -0.4 percent to the -7.6 percent full-time applications decline while their peers did so much better. Two, the University of Chicago found the 20 or so full-time law professors it misplaced last year. Congrats, and let that be a lesson to other law schools that misreport their numbers to the ABA.

So far the 2014-15 academic year has shaped up to be more interesting than I thought it would be. More research on other issues will appear here in time.

2016 Grads Shouldn’t Take Comfort in New Jobs Projection Approach

…Is up on The American Lawyer.

That should sate your law school bug until I compile the data from the ABA’s 509 reports and see what’s there. Gotta give the ABA credit for putting this info up so much sooner than before.

[Update: One thing that’s popped out: WMU Cooley Law School had only 38 full-time matriculants this fall, down from 387 a decade ago.]

Fewer Than 50,000 Applicants Predicted for 2015

And it came to pass, in the 48th week of 2014, that the LSAC saw its shadow and decreed that the fall 2015 law school application cycle had begun, a week earlier than the previous year.

11,415 people have submitted 70,009 applications to an ABA law school thus far, down 8.5 percent and 9.5 percent from last year, respectively. By contrast, in week 49 of 2014, 14,171 people had sent 90,032 applications. Arithmetic suggests that fewer than 50,000 applicants will emerge from the depths next fall.

No. Applicants Over App Cycle No. Applications Over App Cycle

…But arithmetic can be so imprecise. In week 49 of 2013, the projected number of applicants was varied by several percentage points, implies 2015 will be little different from 2014.

We’ll see how the horse race develops.

Household Spending on Legal Services Declines Too

But first, I should inform you that for the second year the ABA Journal has chosen to admit The Law School Tuition Bubble into its Blawg 100. It states:

Matt Leichter makes data-driven arguments in favor of changes to the legal education system. Anyone concerned about the levels of student debt and the state of employment in the legal industry would do well to visit his blog and examine his data firsthand.

I endorse this characterization, and you can endorse my Web site here.

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Speaking of data about the legal industry…

A brief follow-up to Monday’s article on the legal services industry’s continuing contraction: It turns out a few months back the BEA updated its personal income and outlays tables. Although they can only tell us about household consumption of legal services, the data go back much further than the GDP by industry tables do, and arguably household spending on legal services does a better job of capturing the health of the legal services industry for lawyers who enter small practices. I discussed them before here.

There are a few relevant findings.

One, inflation-adjusted household consumption of legal services fell by 3.27 percent in 2013. It’s about 15 percent less than in the peak year, 2003.

Percent Change Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Function

(Source: National Income and Product Accounts, Table 2.5.3., author’s calculations)

Two,  the peak year for legal services as a share of total household expenditures was 1990 (1.09 percent); in 2013 it had fallen to 0.85 percent. It’s comparable to 1983 or 1973.

Legal Services Share of Household Consumption Expenditures

(Source: NIPA Table 2.5.5., author’s calculations)

The point isn’t just that households are spending less lawyers, it’s also that legal services historically have been a trivial expense. Americans spend about twice as much on higher education than legal services (but they certainly didn’t use to!). By contrast health care surged from 6 percent in 1959 to 21 percent in 2013. Compare that to the public perception of lawyers.

Three, household spending on legal services as a share of the industry total has been declining since the early 2000s.

Personal Consumption Expenditures of Legal Services Share of Legal Services Industry

(Source: NIPA Table 2.5.5., GDP by Industry Value Added, author’s calculations)

All of these trends point to the withering of small-law. I am pessimistic of the outlook over the next several years.

Commerce Dept.: Legal Services Sector Contracts (Again) in 2013

Earlier this month the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) updated its GDP by industry data. The chief finding for law-watchers is that in 2013 the legal services industry shrank by 2.9 percent. Ouch. The legal services industry includes all private law firms, and it employs about half of all lawyers. Meanwhile GDP grew by 2.2 percent, meaning that once again, the shriveling legal sector is being outdone by the rest of the economy.

Percent Change Real Value Added by Industry

(Source: GDP by Industry (xls), author’s calculations)

[Correction: Half of wage and salaried lawyers work in the legal services industry; most self-employed lawyers probably work there too.]

I’m providing moving averages to illustrate the break between the legal sector and GDP that began in 2005. That’s not to say things were hunky-dory before, just that those data still haven’t been revised yet. Go ahead, look at the old data and show me the situation was better before 1997. I dare you.

To editorialize, yes, the annual updates are horse-race reporting and recent years get revised a little bit each time, but I’m not enjoying reporting on the contracting legal sector nonetheless. I’m genuinely surprised that it’s still doing so badly, and I thought the Great Law Depression would’ve leveled out by now. Maybe future years and revisions will bear that out, but it’d take a sustained period of significant growth for the outlook to improve. Even a single year of 2.9 percent growth wouldn’t persuade me things are getting better, but even a piddly 0.4 percent would be nice to see.

To make things worse, when drilling into the real value added components, “compensation of employees” has been consistently contributing to the decline.

Contributions to Legal Services Real Value Added

(Source: GDP by Industry (xls), author’s calculations)

Only “taxes on production and imports (less subsidies)” has been growing consistently in the last three years.

The legal sector’s productivity measures are similarly unrelentingly bleak. Real value added per person engaged in production has fallen by about $20,000 since 1997 while the same measure has grown steadily throughout the economy and for the legal industry’s sibling in the “Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services” category, “Computer Systems Design and Related Services.”

Real Value Added Per Person Engaged in Production

(Source: Real Value Added by Industry, NIPA Table 6.8, author’s calculations)

If things keep going at this rate, the average legal services worker will be indistinguishable from the average worker overall. I guess it’s a good thing that the mean average worker isn’t anything like the median? It’s clear, though, that computer design is a much better candidate for “golden-ticket industry” than legal services.

Finally, we have the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ output per hour measure of labor productivity, which is a bit sharper than the real value added per person engaged in production estimated above.

Percent Change Output Per Hour

(Source: BLS Nonmanufacturing Multifactor Productivity Tables)

Here too, the long dashed moving average line (legal services) is comfortably below the thick line (nonfarm business), showing that the legal sector is not becoming more productive with the rest of the economy. More alarmingly, it’s lost about 8 percent of its productivity since 2007, and now the amount of private legal services the country is getting per hour worked is about what it was in 1988.

In conclusion, the data again depict a sputtering industry. For all the reporting on the declining supply of future law graduates, little is said about the long-term trends in the sector that’s most likely to drive demand for their services. Increasingly it appears to be dwindling while at the same time better opportunities for workers are forming in other sectors.

How the Transparency Movement Reinflated the Law School Bubble

Of course I’m click-baiting you! But in place of the vicious criticism you were expecting, you shall receive bitter irony instead. Frankly, I think you’re coming out ahead, so be thankful, you ingrate!

So why did I flag you down?

It appears the Bureau of Labor Statistics is changing its employment projections methodology, specifically its measure of how many workers will be replaced in occupations in its 10-year projection periods—as opposed to the number of positions that the economy will create. Apparently this is a project the BLS has been engaged in for a while, and the comment period is over, so why I didn’t know about it before now escapes and saddens me.

The BLS’s employment projections have long been a go-to source for law school critics. The ~24,000 projected annual lawyer job growth rates they showed every two years contrasted excellently with the ~40,000 law graduates each year (and the even greater number of bar admits). No longer.

Background: Developed in the early 1990s, the BLS’s occupational replacement methodology uses a simple age cohort analysis. For instance if there are fewer employed lawyers in the 55-59 cohort today than there were in the 50-54 cohort five years ago, then you have a rough number of how many people in that age group left the occupation. Do that for all the adjacent cohorts and add together all the negative net changes, and you have the replacement rate. The math behind it is a little bit more complicated and there are some exceptions, like if the occupation is projected to decline overall, but that’s the basic concept.

But the BLS isn’t satisfied with this methodology any more. It suffers from sample bias for occupations with small numbers, and it leans on the assumption that it’s mostly young workers who replace older ones. The bureau is interested in finding the “actual” replacement rate, i.e. one that includes workers transferring to other occupations or leaving the workforce altogether who are concurrently replaced, not just retirees, whom the current methodology tends to capture. This way the projections will include everyone who switches jobs, e.g. fast-food workers for retailer clerks and vice versa, when such changes would otherwise net out under the current methodology. The new methodology is based on Current Population Survey data and regression analysis (which always turns out well) rather than historical trends.

As evidence that the new methodology achieves its purpose of finding more replaced workers where the current one does not, the BLS points to … lawyers because there are external data on employment rates. I’m totally not kidding. It writes (and I editorialize in brackets):

Not all law school graduates become lawyers, but the American Bar Association (ABA) conducts a census of employment outcomes for all law school graduates in order to count the number who find employment in positions that require bar passage (effectively, lawyers). Since ABA began collecting this data in 2011 [Not correct, see below], the number of graduates finding employment in such positions has averaged 29,000 per year. Because some graduates who don’t immediately find such positions may become lawyers later in their career (for example, many graduate become law clerks, a position that does not require bar passage, for a few years before becoming lawyers) [Citation please?], this number [the 29,000 graduates—it’s unclear] should be less than the total number of new entrants into the occupation.

Under the current method, BLS projects an average of 19,650 job openings per year, while the new method projects 41,460 openings per year [!!!!]. Again, no direct comparison between the ABA number and the BLS numbers is possible due to conceptual differences [which, of course, does not rule out indirect comparisons], but the results under the current method are significantly below the actual number of new graduates finding work in the occupation [!]. The new method projects a higher number of openings, which allows for additional entrants not immediately after completion of a law degree.

Okay, data on law graduate unemployment has actually been around for many years, e.g. the NALP and the Official Guide, crude though it was. I’ve written about the strong correlation between falling proportions of graduates finding bar-passage-required jobs and graduates taking JD-advantage jobs or not finding any work. This is evidence of a saturated lawyer market, even if it’s caused in part by slack aggregate demand.

Percent Employed by Status (NALP)

The BLS could also look at lawyer-licensing rates courtesy of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, which it probably should be doing instead of law graduates. So when the BLS says the data are only now available, it’s not doing its homework.

However, the irony—and this is really incredible—is that all those demands for transparency in the employment data, after accusations of misrepresentation and deceit, have perversely led the government to (indirectly) compare the number of graduates in bar-passage-required jobs to its current estimates and use it as evidence that those graduates must be finding bar-passage-required jobs long after graduation.

As arguments from incredulity go, this is a pretty good one. As usual, there are other fallacies.

For one, the BLS is assuming that all occupation changes are positive sum. Everyone who leaves law practice is making the best choice among alternatives (ultimately), so too does everyone who chooses to become lawyers. Thus, departing lawyers need to be replaced. The new methodology automatically rejects the possibility that new entrants force out existing ones and that if more people chose better alternative occupations to law, then fewer lawyers would exit, and everyone would benefit. (Except law professors.) Now, whenever someone leaves the law, there is by definition a shortage, a misallocation of human capital that can only be met by sending more people to law school.

…Especially in light of the eye-exploding 41,460 annual job growth rate, courtesy of the BLS’s new, inscrutable regression approach. It’s certain that some number of lawyers enter practice long after graduation, but assuming 29,000 grads get bar-passage-required jobs, that leaves another 12,500 lawyer jobs each year that must go to earlier graduates despite the swelling numbers of JD-advantaged, unemployed, and other grads who aren’t absorbed earlier.

This leads to an unbelievable replacement rate under the new methodology: If 834,700 projected lawyer jobs in 2022 less 759,800 lawyer positions in 2012 yields 74,900 jobs due to growth, then the cumulative replacement rate (74,900 – (41,460*10 years)) is 339,700 lawyer positions that will “need” replacement over the next decade. If the legal profession has been going through a 44 percent 10-year replacement, then there should never have been a backlog to begin with, and it’s something we should have heard about by now. By contrast the current model shows only a 16 percent 10-year replacement rate.

There’re a few other reasons why the methodology change isn’t a good idea, like aging lawyers, but this post isn’t about that. Rather, it’s a rebuke to everyone who crusaded for transparent employment data based on the rational, debt-guzzling law student assumption. Thanks to them the law schools will soon be saying that the graduate-to-annual-job ratio is (indirectly) in equilibrium right now. The demand for lawyers is there, they’ll say, just after an undetermined period of crippling malemployment … and at a time in their careers when no one is measuring it … except for those After the JD people who found that 24 percent of bar-passers weren’t practicing after 12 years.

Cheekiness aside, it’s likely the BLS (and state governments) will change their projections methodologies accordingly despite law being an unrepresentative occupation with substantial early-career turnover. Be prepared for the dark age of lawyer employment projections.

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