‘Liberal’ Law Grad Thinks Unemployed Law School Debtors Not Poor Enough to Matter

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.

Median Annual Lawyer Salary (2013 $)(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.

David Graeber Thinks ‘Anybody Who Can Get a Law Degree Will Get a Job’

Anthropologist David Graeber is probably best known for writing the 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Last summer he penned a thought-provoking (in a good way) article titled, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which posited as a general rule that “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.” Jobs like nurses, cooks, and fight-clubbers-who-guard-you-while-you-sleep-so-do-not-fuck-with-us are good, bond traders, not so much. “Bullshit Jobs” was attacked by every neoclassically trained economist for rejecting marginal product theory, and rightly so. The problem isn’t marginal product theory but what John Bates Clark did to it: tear land out of the factor distribution because he was a shill for robber barons who hated Henry George and his land-taxing followers. The result is a tax system that rewards unproductive activities like land ownership while punishing work and investment.

Graeber sat for an interview with PBS and discussed why he favored giving everyone a basic income instead of government welfare benefits of various types, a proposal favored by a handful of conservatives, most notably Charles Murray. I’ll get to that proposal in a moment, but Graeber gave this fantastic line, which is worth a post:

In our society we have a very, very limited demand for brilliant poet-musicians, but we have an infinite demand for corporate lawyers; anybody who can get a law degree will get a job. Well, is that because most people think that corporate lawyers are better to have around than poet-musicians? No. Almost everybody, given the choice, would go for the poet-musicians, but people with lots of money like to have corporate lawyers, so that’s what the market actually ends up saying.

To his credit, Graeber recognizes that high-end lawyers’ incomes are often due to rich people’s and corporations’ willingness to pay them. Compare this with liberals who think the ABA creates an artificial shortage of lawyers.

However, in the real world, demand for corporate lawyers is finite and it is not true that “anybody who can get a law degree will get a job.” In fact, just two weeks ago, we learned that the unemployment rate for recent law school graduates was 11.2 percent, and only 55.3 percent were employed in full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required positions that weren’t funded by a law school. Another 15.6 percent were employed in the treacherous “business and industry” category.

And on and on. You get the idea.

My point is that like people who think the ABA engineers a lawyer shortage, Graeber is ignorant of the real crisis faced by law students and graduates. Instead, he thinks that there’s “infinite demand” for corporate lawyers when 5,229 law grads from last year beg to differ.

As for the actual topic of the interview, basic income instead of government services, there are a few problems. One, landowners will suck the benefits up, so without taxes on land rents, poverty won’t vanish. If all taxes come out of rent (ATCOR), then all subsidies flow to rent (ASFTR (wow, that doesn’t work at all)). Two, paying for a basic income out of the current tax system will distort incentives for higher-income taxpayers (to the extent their incomes aren’t rents). Three, government isn’t filled with bureaucrats who push paper. Okay those SEC guys who were watching porn all day not so much, but some people need more government services than the basic income check will provide. These are reasons to shift taxes off of labor and capital and onto land before implementing basic income schemes.

CBO Projects Additional $1.3 Trillion in Student Loan Debt by 2024

…And that’s just the government loans.

Forget Erwin Chemerinsky’s and Carrie Menkel-Meadow’s NYT op-ed, the real news is the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projection of the federal student loan program for FY 2014-2024. Notably, it thinks that over the next 11 years the government will lend out another $1.3 trillion in direct loans and that it’ll even make $1.10 per dollar lent. $115 billion of that will be Grad PLUS loans (9 percent).

Federal law requires the CBO to account for student loans by comparing the net present value of federal loans to investing in government debt. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and the CBO would rather use fair-value accounting to evaluate the loan risk, so its hands are tied behind its back.

…But that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at its absurd projections for Grad PLUS loans, about 30 percent of which go to ABA law school law students.

For one, the CBO believes that the government will make more than $1.30 on the dollar from Grad PLUS loans.

2014 Student Loan Baseline Projections (2)

(Click to Enlarge)

In the real world, most people who take out large balances of Grad PLUS loans will use IBR and then cancel their loans after 20 years. I’d be very surprised if non-law graduate and professional students counterbalance the losses the government will take on these loans. Another prediction I don’t think will pan out is the increase in the average amount borrowed and the number of borrowers.

The other fantasy is subtler: The CBO expects interest rates to spike over the next few years. By 2018, students will be borrowing at the maximum legal interest rates because either the economy will recover magnificently, or the bond vigilantes will finally come and stop lending the government money. (Then, of course, there would be a run on the dollar, export demand will spike, and we’ll return to full employment, but that’s off-topic.)

2014 Student Loan Baseline Projections (5)(Click to Enlarge)

If you do the math, on a 10-year repayment plan (which is used for calculating 20-year IBR monthly payments), law students entering today will pay a maximum additional 5.3 percent in interest for their 3L Grad PLUS loans over their 1L ones this fall. In other words, the CBO predicts law school’s costs will increase even as schools flatten or cut tuition.

I wonder if law professors writing op-eds agree.

After the JD Wave 0

Last month I wrote an article for the The Am Law Daily about the After the JD project, a longitudinal study that measures employment outcomes for people who passed the bar exam in 2000. I thought it might be interesting to offer, as an appendix, the Official Guide‘s employment outcomes for Y2K law grads (they’re in the ’03 edition). Obviously, this isn’t a perfect fit as some people who passed the bar in 2000 graduated earlier, but the overlap should be fairly significant.

Back in those days, though, the Official Guide wasn’t the treasure trove of knowledge that the ABA’s employment questionnaire reports are now, and it’s certainly not as detailed as the After the JD’s information is. However, for those interested in getting a sense of the legal market many of the After the JD cohort entered into by law school, look no further.

To conserve blog space, the tables will follow the jump.

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Class of 2013 Employment Report

[UPDATE: Emory's data are now included in this page.]

Okay, this’ll be short as I have work to do.

The ABA has released its employment data for the class of 2013, which is defined as everyone who graduated between September 1, 2012, and August 1, 2013. Employment data are outcomes as of February 15, 2014, irrespective of interim job changes. Savvy readers will notice that the most mediocre law school ever, Generic University School of Law, made an appearance again. They’ll also note that Emory’s data have been removed from the ABA’s site, which I’m sure will be corrected soon. For those who are truly curious, the ABA has even broken down the employment data for each of Cooley’s branch campuses. There are a few other traps for the unwary, e.g. schools that haven’t received even provisional ABA accreditation, like Lincoln Memorial. Even Peking China made the list. None of these schools have any useful data.

Generally, graduates fared little better this year than last year. 55.3 57 percent were employed full-time/long-term in bar-passage required jobs. This is up 0.2 0.8 percentage points from February 2013.

On the other hand, the graduate unemployment rate grew while the non-response rate declined.

Tables below the jump to conserve blog space.

Continue reading

What’s ‘Bold’ About Nominal Law School Tuition Cuts?

…Is the question readers of The New York Times asked themselves Saturday morning while reading, James B. Stewart’s, “A Bold Bid to Combat a Crisis in Legal Education.”

The article begins by promptly misleading readers into believing there is a “crisis” in legal education because five law schools have closed, even though apparently all five were non-ABA-accredited schools in California, which frequently enroll only a few students. The distinction is important because the article doesn’t investigate why those law schools closed (if they did—I suspect the NYT’s source is the Wikipedia, which isn’t always reliable for information on California law schools) and what commonalities their fiscal situations shared with Brooklyn Law School’s, the central character in the article.

Indeed, the NYT quotes Brooklyn’s dean, Nicholas Allard, saying that high law school debt burdens are a significant problem, yet students at most non-ABA schools are ineligible for the kind of easy federal student loans ABA schools are infamous for. In 2012-13, 49 percent of Brooklyn Law students took out an average $34,800 in Grad PLUS loans, which can cover the $29,500 gap between the annual Stafford Loan limit and full-time tuition—and also living expenses in cheap, cheap Brooklyn Heights.

As for Brooklyn’s “bold” move:

[Brooklyn] announced that it was taking some unusually bold steps to confront the crisis: The school is cutting tuition and abandoning what has become a widespread obsession with climbing the ladder of national law school rankings.

But the real question is, does Brooklyn Law have a choice? For instance, this year it accepted 47 percent of its full-time applicants, up 7 percent from 2012-13 and up 17 percent from 2011-12. In 2012-13, only 16 percent of its full-time students were paying full tuition. Sixty-three percent were paying $35,400 or less, which after cursory investigation makes Brooklyn the most “over-leveraged” law school in the New York City area in terms of merit aid. Even Seton Hall doesn’t subsidize that many full-time students by that much. Clearly, Brooklyn Law School was playing the scholarship game very, very hard.

And it still lost badly, hence the cuts.

Aside from the above criticisms, too much of the article relies on quotations rather than real reporting. Specifically, the last three paragraphs might as well have been written as an editorial by Dean Allard.

Mr. Allard argues passionately that the legal profession isn’t just for Supreme Court clerks and high-paid associates at elite firms. He noted that 94 percent of Brooklyn’s graduates passed the bar exam and 90 percent were currently employed in legal careers. Many meet the legal needs of underserved populations.

To my knowledge, the bar passage rate is right for last July, but the 90 percent employment in “legal careers” would be a miraculous turn of fortune for Brooklyn Law’s graduates. Fewer than half of its 2011 and 2012 grads were employed full-time, long-term in “bar passage required” positions, and less than 10 percent of both classes were in full-time, long-term “JD advantage” jobs. Did I mention that more than a quarter of these grads reported being either unemployed or didn’t respond to the survey?

Allard adds:

“Those who do manage to graduate from law school end up with excruciating debt. They feel compelled to take jobs with the highest paycheck to find some relief. They don’t feel free to work in jobs that fit their interests or that meet a critical demand.”

Tell that to the Brooklyn grads who never have an opportunity for such jobs.

Then he closes with the real howler:

[Allard] said he believed that law schools had an obligation to address the problem. “If we don’t get this right, we’ll create an acute shortage of lawyers, and law schools will price themselves out of business.”

An acute shortage of lawyers? In a state that allows foreign-trained graduates to take the state’s bar exam?

Yes, the nominal tuition cut and reduced merit scholarship gaming is a good thing. However, characterizing it as “bold” instead of “necessary”; comparing Brooklyn to tiny, non-ABA law schools that aren’t eligible for federal loans; and then handing the mic to the dean is not good reporting. The Times takes Allard at his word when he rhetorically asks, “If you increase quality and reduce cost, demand goes up. Why isn’t everybody doing this?” when it should be asking him why schools weren’t doing that before. Why can’t the Times ask what if anything law schools can do to reduce the signaling effect on law school costs?

Real coverage on the story would have involved asking whether the proposed tuition cut would in fact increase demand. Law degrees aren’t perfectly spherical widget cows from an econ textbook; they’re highly subsidized positional goods that have lost their popularity. How will Brooklyn Law communicate to prospective applicants that $45,000 annual tuition as opposed to $53,000 will make their degrees worth the risk of 20 percent unemployment nine months after graduation?

We’ll find out in a few years if the Times and Allard are right. If Brooklyn’s application and matriculant positions stabilize (it lost 700 full-time applicants this year), increase, or drop less than at nearby schools that don’t try cutting tuition, then we’ll know that its target consumers respond to price changes. However, history has shown that law school applicants weren’t sensitive to price increases in the past, so it stands to reason that they won’t be when prices fall.

If this is true, then Brooklyn Law will have to do more than cut nominal tuition.

The Unnatural End of American Social Reproduction

A theoretical sketch:

Young people are supposed to borrow money to buy houses, start business, and get educations that allow them to “buy out” the previous generation. Then they work, and as they age they save, often moving from home to home as their families grow. They eventually become the net creditors who are then bought out by the succeeding generation. They often downsize their homes. This is the generational lifecycle. It is the mechanism of social reproduction.

The cog in the generational lifecycle is the Georgist land cycle. Because the supply of land (especially urban locations) is fixed, its value is inevitably whipsawed by speculation. The more people buy land at the peak of the land cycle and lose out, the more land ends up in the hands of the wealthy (banks), who can afford to wait to sell the land when prices rise again. Everyone else must suffer.

If after several of these cycles, people lack the purchasing power to buy out the previous generation, they cease to reproduce—more so thanks to the contraception revolution—and existing landowners hoard land for longer, exacerbating the disruption of the generational lifecycle.

I believe this happened in Japan after its land bubble burst in 1990. I’m sure some moss-covered media outlet is overdue for an article on “herbivore” men and “parasite single” women.

Here’s evidence for the disruption in the United States. Behold the household formation rate.

Household Formation Rate

(Source: Table 13, 13(a), spikes due mainly to Census revisions)

Note that the conventional (blue) and revised (red) estimates were at a combined record low last year.

Now here are total households by age.

Total Households by Age

(Source: Table 12, 12(a))

…And declining homeownership rates.

Homeownership Rates by Age

(Source: Table 12, 12(a))

Undoubtedly, the relatively large boomer cohort is influencing what’s shown here, but eyeballing the charts shows that the 35-44 and <35 brackets are the ones that have been hampered the most. Also, the measure of new households isn’t a perfect measure of what we’re looking for. For instance, I have no idea how many people live in roommate-type arrangements or live alone. However, if you want more direct evidence of the disruption of the generational lifecycle, you can see here the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who are children of householders. For women, the percentage has pretty much doubled since 2004. You can also see that for men the typical low was about 10 percent before 1980.

Figure AD-1b

(Source: Table AD-1b)

Mass unemployment and low wages ensure that young people won’t be able to buy out the older generation. Somewhere along the chain of homeowners, people will be unable to (or believe they will be unable to) sell their homes to the next household in the sequence. This will create pessimism for homeownership, freeze growth, and further reduce the number of future households.

Without reform it could take many years for the negative feedback from the land cycle to stop disrupting social reproduction.


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