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.

States’ Projected Lawyer Surpluses Deteriorate for 2022

…Is up on The American Lawyer.

I’m proud to say that unlike last year, there is no “Mississippi problem,” in which the net lawyer growth rate in any state exceeded its ten-year annual job growth rate, yielding a negative replacement rate, sky high surplus calculations, and a lot of time spent explaining math to the media.

The Legal Recessions That Weren’t

I don’t read The New Yorker regularly, but I’m of the demographic that does, so it pained me to read the first two sentences of its article, “The Legal One Percent.”

After every recession since the Second World War, the legal profession swiftly and robustly recovered. Not this time.

This is not what the data say. The legal sector (which isn’t the same as the legal profession, but given that the article goes on to cite profits-per-partner data I think that’s what The New Yorker means) has done terribly after recessions since the late 1970s. Although the BEA still hasn’t updated its industry data for the period between 1977 and 1997 per its comprehensive revision, the older data show the overall stagnation.

Legal Sector Real Value Added

It took five years for the legal sector to recover to its 1979 high, and then eight years to get back to where it was in 1990. This is supported by data on household consumption expenditures on legal services, as well as the Labor Department’s measure of employees in legal services.

Household Consumption of Legal Services

Per capita spending on legal services probably peaked in 1990, and it’s probably fallen to its 1960s’ level.

The legal sector and the legal profession have been ailing for quite a while. It’s surprising that their stagnation is still misreported.

Good News: The Student Loan Bubble* Has Been Canceled

(* Not to be confused with the student loan crisis being canceled. That was so~ last June.)

The other good news on this election day is that whenever Reuters says it’s conducted an “analysis,” you’re excused from taking it seriously. In “U.S. student debt burden falling more on top earners, easing bubble fears,” the news agency boldly tells us:

[T]he analysis of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances [SCF], a triennial survey published in September with 2013 data, makes it clear that heavy borrowing is usually rewarded with big salaries.

Clear, eh? The article’s only real evidence that student loan debt leads to higher incomes is the word of higher ed cheerleader Sandy Baum, so that’s just an argument from authority.

The increased concentration of debt among the well-paid should ease concerns that the surge in debt is a wider economic threat.

This is a normative statement that doesn’t cite anyone who says that student debt is a “wider economic threat,” much less what that means. It’s also misleading to say that the debt is increasingly concentrated among the well paid. Although the article states that “over the past two decades the young with higher incomes have gone from owing less of the debt than the average household to owing considerably more,” over the past decade things aren’t really that different. The proportion of young households (those headed by someone between the ages of 20 and 40) earning more than $60,000 doesn’t hold any more of their age group’s student loan debt than before.

Reuters could have found that out by discussing the Fed’s write-up of its own findings. The word for this is “reporting.” Behold, Box 10 on page 27 of the Fed’s “Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2010 to 2013: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances” (pdf).

Young Families' Education Debt by Income Group (SCF)

Notice that in 2013 more than twenty percent of student debt held by young households fell into the less-than-$30,000 bracket, about twice as much as twelve years earlier. This doesn’t ease my concerns that the surge in debt is a wider economic threat, but if Reuters doesn’t have to define that, I don’t have to either. Nevertheless, you can imagine why I think it’s probably not a good thing that a growing slice of an expanding debt pie is falling on people with less than $30,000 in income.

And for those of you who think I overindulge on MS Excel graphs, gaze upon the Fed’s “SCF Chartbook,” and weep for your wretched souls while scrolling through all 1,260 browser-crashing charts therein (pdf—if you dare: Education installment loans are from pages 1083-1118).

Here are two that are relevant to Reuters‘ general argument that student loan debt isn’t a problem because most of it is held by high-income households:

Percent of Families With Education Installment Loans (SCF)

Median Value of Education Installment Loans (SCF)

These aren’t young households—you can find them on pages 1089 and 1090—but I think these charts make it clear (in the way that quoting Sandy Baum does not) that student debt is a problem for low-income households: A fraction of the student loan mountain can still be an unscalable crag.

For example, the median household in the 20th income percentile (from page 7) has made about $11,000-$13,000 over the last twenty-five years, but the percentage of such households holding student loan debt has doubled while their median debt has nearly tripled. The median middle-income household (40th to 59.9th percentiles) made less than $47,000 in 1989 and 2013. (Ouch.) That household in that income bracket saw its student loans grow by more than $10,000, and the percentage of student-debt-holding middle-incomes households nearly tripled. I don’t know what the income numbers are when you exclude non-student-loan debtor-households, but it’s unlikely to be much higher.

Back to our young earners, in 1989 17.1 percent of households headed by people under 35 had a median $5,400 in student loan debt. In 2013, the median balance for 41.7 percent of those households owed $17,200. Their median incomes have declined (page 10).

Undaunted, the article throws out just about every other argument for student loan debt that I’ve seen: the college premium, the economists who believe the supply of college graduates isn’t keeping up with demand for high tech jobs, and the claim that amputating graduate borrowing from the total makes the problem “almost” go away. Ooh, those irresponsible grad students! The only things Reuters didn’t do was find someone to tell us that all we need to do is “fix” IBR or that it’s all the for-profits’ fault.

Although the article finds the column inches for the high student loan delinquency rate, it neglects to cite the Education Department’s Federal Student Loan Portfolio (portfolio by loan status) data showing that barely half of the $1.1 trillion of federal student loan debt is in active repayment while 17 percent is categorized as in-school or in grace period. As the Fed’s report says of debts in deferments due to tough economic times, “[T]hese debts will eventually have to be repaid.”

Right. Just don’t tell that to last June’s student debt crisis slayer, Beth Akers, whom Reuters quotes:

“Debt is a tool. If anything, I’d want to encourage lower income people to take more advantage of it.”

Yeah, and look where it’s getting them.

Too Bad TJSL’s Grads Can’t Get a 2/3ds Write-Off

Oh, I’m sorry, “restructuring.”

That’s all that really needs to be said about Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s “Restructuring Support Agreement” with 90 percent of its bondholders. I’ve refrained from editorializing on the most of troubled law schools, but an $87 million write-off for its Xanadu-esque building sounds high. I suppose it beats a chapter 7 corporate dissolution; there is still plenty of unsubsidized Stafford loan margin to be captured, after all.

TJSL’s students on the other hand at least get PAYE, which they’ll need because last year they left with an average disbursed debt of $180,665. In order to avoid loan cancellation, even without accrued interest, graduates would need to make $182,000 from their very first repayment. After that, it’s twenty years until the government forgives their balances and sends them a tax bill for it.

But I’m sure employers are committed to ensuring that TJSL grads receive more than triple median household income the day they walk through the door.

LSAT Tea-Leaf Reading: September 2014 Edition

You heard that right, the October LSAT happened in September. Not sure why. Maybe it’s a thing; maybe it’s not. I seriously doubt holding the test a week early affected the number of takers.

Speaking of which … Only 30,943 people sat for the LSAT last month, breaking the record low set in 1998 (33,558). Last October’s administration came close to doing it, but it wasn’t quite enough. As far as I can tell, October 2014 is now the record low probably going back to 1986 or the year before when the end-of-year LSAT had fallen below 100,000 for the first time since 1969. The rate of decline, 8.1 percent, has decelerated from 10.9 percent last year. Take a look:

No. LSAT Takers, 4-Testing Period Moving Sum

The four-period moving sum has fallen to 100,607, also breaching the October 1998 record (~102,000). In fact, there are now fewer LSAT-takers than first-time LSAT-takers in the peak years of ’02, ’03, and ’09.

So the last time October LSATs were this low, you had just bought the tapes to something like … Wait for it … Wait for it … True Blue by Madonna and the soundtrack to Top Gun. If the previous October LSAT record was 1985, then you were certainly listening to the Back to the Future soundtrack (very appropriately given its sequel took us to 2015)—and I don’t blame you—or Songs From the Big Chair by Tears for Fears.

Although falling LSATs is still a good thing, the downside is that I know almost nothing about ’80s music.

Less Debt, Fewer Defaults, and More IBR

…Is everything you needed to know about last week in the world of federal student loans.

We have The Wall Street Journal‘s Morning Editorial Report … um … editorializing on the “Surge in Student Debt Forgiveness.” The whole article is subscription required, but it appears the WSJ is continuing its biased reporting on IBR by sloppily characterizing it as a loan-forgiveness program rather than a program whose intended purpose is to reduce monthly payments. That’s not to say I don’t think IBR will cost the government a lot of money or that the average amount borrowed is high enough to indicate that a lot of these debtors borrowed Grad PLUS loans, but this is pretty shrill. Like, how dare an income-based repayment program base people’s repayments on their incomes? What’s next Social Security securing society from old people starving to death in the streets??

On the other hand, we have The Washington Post, which does a much better job of pondering why student loan defaults are dropping. IBR is part of it, as is slightly better job outcomes for graduates. It even concedes that college graduates are finding jobs that don’t require their degrees. Clearly the author has not gotten the memo on occupations.

Finally we have an article by … me. This very post you’re reading. Recently, the Department of Education released its fourth quarter report of total student loan volumes by institution. The slightly good news is that last year the aggregate disbursement fell below $100 billion.

Aggregate Federal Loans Disbursed (Current $)

The bulk (43 percent) of the $5.9 billion decline is in unsubsidized Stafford loans to undergraduates, and 37 percent were due to subsidized Stafford loans (which now go only to undergraduates). The rest (1/4th) is due to unsubsidized Staffords to graduate students. Grad PLUS loan disbursements grew by half a percent. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

As for the amount disbursed per recipient (in current dollars, for loan limits aren’t inflation-adjusted and that’s the benchmark to measure changes against), most of the loan types saw negligible declines, indicating that either fewer people are taking out federal loans or fewer Americans are going to college.

Meanwhile, since the Internet tells us that Thomas Jefferson School of Law is in trouble, I figure it’s time to check in on those freestanding private law schools. TJSL isn’t alone, it just hasn’t managed to find a public university to socialize it yet (see WSJ, there’s your Social Security quip!). Western State fused into Argosy University two years ago, but I heard that was a long time coming. Texas Wesleyan is now Texas A&M, and some of the formers’ graduates want diplomas that say they went to the more reputable latter. Chalk one more up for the signaling hypothesis. Finally, the University of New Hampshire (formerly Franklin Pierce Law Center) is in fact now the University of New Hampshire. Go figure.

Oh, and how could I forget: Thomas M. Cooley is now affiliated with Western Michigan University.

I’ve heard rumors of other mergers going on among the FSP law schools, but that’s four that are adapting to the new world. TJSL just happens to be dealing with its fiscal problems by having a fiscal crisis.

There’s more to be said on this, but I figured I’d leave you with a chart comparing the average amount borrowed per recipient of federal loans at each of these law schools to their total costs for full-time students according to the Official Guide.

Average Amounts Borrowed Over Full-Time Costs at FSP Law Schools (2013-14)

I draw your attention to the fact that at none of these schools can a full-time law student cover his or her tuition with just unsubsidized Stafford loans. (Also, it seems that some law students are cleverly borrowing more than the annual loan limit allows. Hm.) At the average FSP law school last year, 87 percent of students took out Stafford loans; 70 percent borrowed Grad PLUS loans.

Fin.

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