Original Research

W&S Lawyer Employment Inches Up in 2017, Incomes Inch Down

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) usually completes its updates of its many measures of occupational employment for the previous year by April. Data for 2017 are now available, allowing a comprehensive summary of lawyer employment for that year. For detailed discussion of what the BLS datasets are and how they address lawyer employment, I recommend the lawyer overproduction page [updated!].

For context, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS), the number of people who reported working as lawyers in 2017 grew trivially to 1,137,000, up just 4,000 people. The CPS also estimated 781,000 people working as lawyers on a wage or salary basis, a 4.8 percent rise from the previous year (+36,000 lawyers). By contrast, the more accurate Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program found that the number of wage-and-salary lawyers grew by 1.4 percent last year to 628,370 (+8,840 jobs). The number of employee lawyers in the legal sector also grew by 1.4 percent to 388,670 (+5,940).

Employee lawyers’ incomes fell slightly in 2017. The OES estimated a -1.2 percent median hourly wage decline, although the CPS registered a striking 6.0 percent median weekly wage increase. Going by the OES, the last peak for lawyers’ earnings was 2009 (~$125,000 annually); incomes are about 7.8 percent lower (-$9,800) in real dollars since then. Here is an annualized dispersion.

These lawyer employment and income measures are not strong bellwethers for the value of legal education because they include many established lawyers and don’t measure recent graduate outcomes particularly well, especially those of graduates who do not promptly start careers in law. Readers seeking insight into that topic are instead advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes and the lawyer production page for a clear discussion of the BLS’s Employment Projections program.

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Prior editions of this post:

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2016: Full-Time Students Paying Full Tuition Fell by 2.4 Percentage Points

Discussions of law-school costs are incomplete if they do not include discounts some students receive, usually as merit scholarships paid for by their full-tuition-paying classmates. The topic is salient today because Congress is considering limiting the amount law students can borrow from the federal government. If the PROSPER Act passes, then it’s likely law schools would need to reorganize their cost structures—notably by reducing scholarships and their full price tags. To analyze the phenomenon of discounting, I focus on the ABA’s 509 information reports’ scholarship data. This information lags the academic year by one year, so as of the 2017-18 academic year, we now have data on 2016-17. One new drawback this year is that law schools that closed or stopped accepting new students before 2017 did not provide scholarship data for 2016, so the picture is slightly distorted.

In 2016, the proportion of full-time students paying full tuition fell by 2.4 percentage points from 28.1 percent to 25.7 percent at the average law school not in Puerto Rico. At the median law school less than one-quarter of students pay full tuition.

The proportion of students paying full tuition has fallen considerably over the years. At the turn of the century, more than half of students paid full cost; now about a quarter do.

At the average private law school, which don’t price discriminate in favor of resident students, the number of students receiving grants ranging between half tuition and full tuition now exceeds the number paying full tuition. Many more receive a grant worth less-than-half tuition.

One advantage of knowing how many full-time students pay full tuition is that we can estimate the total revenue they generate for private law schools, except Brigham Young University, which charges LDS students less.

Since 2011, the peak year, inflation-adjusted revenue from full-tuition-paying full-time students has fallen 55 percent. Since 2001, the last year for which data are available, the drop is 35 percent. In 2016, the median private law school’s full-tuition revenue was $3.8 million, down from $12.2 million in 2011. In 2001, the median was $9 million. This is quite a precipitous decline.

So how substantially are private law schools discounting? The best way to answer that question is by treating the sticker price at private law schools as the independent variable, and treating as the dependent variable their tuition after subtracting their median grant (median-discounted tuition “MDT”). First I divide private law schools into full tuition quintiles and give their mean averages. Then I take mean of the MDTs within each quintile.

We find that the MDT at the most expensive law schools is about as much as full tuition at the cheapest private law schools. Meanwhile, schools in the fourth quintile now discount to the level that third quintile law schools do. This indicates pretty fierce competition for students. MDTs at the bottom four-fifths of law schools are converging with one another while diverging from the most expensive schools.

That’s all for now.

Information on this topic from previous years:

2017: Full-Time Private Law School Tuition Up 3.2 Percent

Full-time tuition costs at private law schools rose an average 3.2 percent before adjusting for inflation. The rate is about half a point higher than last year’s increase, but it’s still well below the typical 5 percent rate before the Great Recession. For comparison, 2012 and 2013 saw increases of 3.7 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively. I focus on private law-school tuition because public law schools receive varying degrees of state subsidies, so they do not reflect the already distorted legal-education market’s prices.

Here’s what the dispersion of full-time private and full-time public (residential) tuition looks like going back to 1996:

Last year I pondered whether the public law school at the 25th percentile would begin charging more than the Stafford Loan limit of $20,500. It’s still one thousand dollars shy of it—in fact, it fell by $200 after adjusting for inflation. As of now, 10 percent of private law schools (12) charge more than $60,000, with the maximum at $67,564 (Columbia). It was only back in 2012 that the top 10 percent charged over $50,000 in nominal dollars, +$10,000 in five years.

In 2017, the median private law school charged $47,071 (between Pace and Suffolk); the mean was $46,843.

Unusually, costs grew consistently among private law schools. If we separate the law schools into quintiles, here’re the increases at the mean of each quintile.

From 2014-16, the tuition increases were stacked towards the high end, which was consistent with the prediction that the cheaper law schools were so fiscally crunched that they couldn’t afford to raise their costs any more. 2017 clearly breaks that trend, and along with its moderate mean increase the growth is distributed fairly evenly among private law schools.

The following private law schools raised their tuition charges by more than 5 percent:

  • Widener (Delaware) (+12.0%)
  • Liberty (+10.8%)
  • La Verne (+10.2%)
  • Elon (+10.0%)
  • Brooklyn (+9.8%)
  • Belmont (+8.9%)
  • John Marshall (Atlanta) (+5.9%)
  • Mississippi College (+5.6%)
  • Mitchell|Hamline (+5.5%)
  • Capital (+5.4%)

I would be cruel to ignore private law schools that cut their full tuition, so here’s that meager list:

  • University of Tulsa (-33.6%)
  • Howard University (-10.4%)
  • Santa Clara University (-3.4%)
  • Whittier Law School (-2.2%)
  • Arizona Summit (-0.3%)

Yes, Tulsa’s one-third slash is the largest nominal tuition cut I can find going back to 1996. It beat Indiana Tech’s (-31.1 percent) last year (fat lot of good that did) and Ohio Northern’s (-26.4 percent) in 2014. Howard’s is fairly significant as well, particularly because in 2016 it raised tuition by 10.9 percent. Big raspberries go to Elon University which extended its students a -12.1 percent cut in 2015 only to mostly reverse it with a 10 percent hike this year.

Nine private law schools kept their full-tuition tags flat (Golden Gate, University of the Pacific, Western State, Ave Maria, St. Thomas (FL), Mercer, Illinois Institute of Technology, Western New England, and Vermont). Barry increased its costs by … $1.

Here are public law schools that cut their costs to resident students:

  • University of Illinois (-7.8%)
  • University of D.C. (-5.6%)
  • University of New Mexico (-5.3%)
  • Texas Tech University (-1.1%)

I note that D.C. and New Mexico both increased their costs last year by more than these decreases.

Overall, the size and character of the increases at private law schools was the same as last year, they were just distributed more evenly among law schools. The phenomenon of nominal tuition cuts is still marginal, and some schools appear to reverse their cuts shortly after instituting them.

Going forward, the thing to look out for is if Congress passes the PROSPER Act, which would cap federal loans to law students at $28,500 and fix a lifetime cap of $150,000 per student. If it does, then I predict that law schools will respond by serious restructuring: eliminating merit scholarships, slashing tuition to $28,500 plus whatever private lenders are willing to lend out, and getting rid of many faculty and their perks. I’m also sure many central universities will use the PROSPER Act as an opportunity to shut down their money-losing law schools.

Of course, this all assumes that the Bennett hypothesis is true, but AccessLex-funded research falsified it, so we all know law schools will raise their prices forever.

Full-time tuition costs don’t necessarily indicate what students are actually charged, but they do show how much rent law schools can extract from the government’s loan programs.

Information on this topic from prior years:

2017: Full-Time Applications Plummet

…Because the ABA’s standard 509 information reports no longer track them, which reminds me of the outrage directed at the ABA last summer for rubber-stamping one law professor’s vision for collecting and displaying employment data to the masses. For those into the cloak-and-dagger stuff, the Data Policy and Collection Committee was folded into the Standards Review Committee earlier this year, and it “reevaluated” the annual questionnaire it sends to law schools. You can read about it here (docx).

One of the bigger changes is eliminating the distinction between part-time and full-time law students wherever it could be found except in tuition costs (thankfully) and scholarship awards. This means that law schools that admit large numbers of part-time students, who tend not to do so well on the LSAT, can see their average LSAT scores nosedive. Also, instead of tracking calendar-year applications, offers, and matriculants, the reports now only measure October-October applications, offers, and … enrollees? Makes them sound like participants in unethical science experiments, but at least spellchecker can tolerate them.

Naturally, as someone who tracks ABA law-school data longitudinally going back to the Clinton administration, I think these changes are monumentally stupid, especially eliminating the full-time/part-time distinction. However, the ABA rarely announces these decisions openly and doesn’t have some kind of RSS feed for those of who care to track it. That’s probably an even dumber mistake.

So, going forward, when it comes to my first annual 509 post on law school … enrollees, I will use data for all law students. I’ve been able to reassemble the data going back to calendar-year 2011, but obviously the change in the data-collection year from “calendar year” to “admissions cycle” will distort the results somewhat (I doubt there are too many October-December enrollees). Too bad. Yell at the ABA.

By October 2017, there were 35,381 enrollees at 200 ABA-accredited law schools not in Puerto Rico, which probably didn’t have any enrollees left by October anyway. This is down 1,212 (-3.3 percent) from 36,593 in December 2016. Some of this is due to two law schools closing and one ceasing admissions. Charlotte (-343), Whittier (-132), and Indiana Tech (-41) together account for about 43 percent of the 1,212-enrollee drop.

In other words, aside from thinning the law-school herd, 2017 isn’t that different from 2016.

Application acceptance rates are a little lower. The median law school saw about 1.7 percent more applications than last year.

Sorry this isn’t as complete as in past years. I can’t spend a whole weekend hand-coding Official Guide info going back another twelve years.

Applicants showed trivially more interest in more law schools this year, according to my modified Lorenz curve. The overall Gini coefficient is down trivially this year to 0.427. (You can read about what that means here.)

A Lorenz curve measures the cumulative distribution of a quantity in order from the recipient of the smallest amount to the largest. Usually researchers use the distribution of income among households. I’ve modified the Lorenz curve according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings for the previous year because the rankings are an independent measurement of law-school eliteness as seen by LSAT takers and applicants roughly at the time that they apply. Here is what I could cobble together going back to 2011.

Given that applications were mostly flat this year, it’s unsurprising that there hasn’t been much change in the distribution of applications.

Next year, thanks to His Emolumence’s perfidy, we’ll have a kind of natural experiment of what happens when applications rise after everyone’s been told that law school is a bad idea. Will unheralded law schools benefit from the bump, or will our idealists apply strategically to top law schools? Will Grad PLUS loans go the way of the full-time matriculants? Find out next year.

This post consolidates information from multiple posts over previous years. You can read prior coverage at the following links.

What Recovery? Legal Services Industry Grows 0.2 Percent in 2016

Last year I celebrated a full 2.0 percent growth in the legal-services industry, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. Alas, this year it’s all been dashed away and revised. Instead of 2.0 percent growth, we have 0.2 percent growth, and the figure for 2015 has been revised downward to 0.4 percent. Sad trombone.

The whole economy grew 1.5 percent to the legal sector’s 0.4 percent.

(Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA))

Since 2008, the legal sector has contracted by a cumulative 23 percent. It is about the same size as in 1995.

As for the composition of the legal sector’s value added, it’s mostly attributable to … taxes (+0.4 percent). The gross operating surplus, i.e. what goes to firm owners, was down 0.1 percent, and total compensation has been flat two years in a row. Since 2008, compensation of employees has contributed -7.5 percent to the legal sector. The gross operating surplus added -15.5 percent, and taxes contributed nothing.

Finally, consistent with flat growth in the legal sector, household consumption of legal services fell by 1 percent, but it at least grew by 2 percent in 2015. Since its peak year, 2003, spending on legal services has dropped by 12.5 percent.

Households consume about as much in legal services of their total consumption as they did in 1982.

Last year I wrote that the legal-services sector can’t shrink forever, but sustained growth is still nowhere to be found. Looking at how much it’s fallen behind the rest of the economy, it’s surreal to think about how much growth would be needed for it to catch up.

BLS: 74,800 New Lawyer Jobs by 2026, Turnover of 22 Percent

On October 24th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its employment projections for the next cycle, 2016-26.

For 2016, the BLS Employment Projections program (EPP) estimates that there were 792,500 lawyer positions (as opposed to discrete lawyers) in the United States. This figure includes self-employed lawyers. In 2014, the EPP found 778,700 lawyer positions, so there has been some growth between the two years. According to the BLS’s Current Population Survey (CPS), in 2016, 1.133 million people worked as lawyers in the United States. The discrepancy between the CPS and the EPP has existed for some time. In their respective contexts, both figures are correct.

The BLS projects future employment trends in part to help job seekers evaluate career choices, and the projections play a significant role in the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Here is an illustration, from various sources, of law-school graduate and lawyer growth since the 1980s.

Click here to read more:

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