Bottleneck Argument

Current Circumstances Cast a Shadow on Past Decisions

Put positively: Current circumstances illuminate past decisions.

I guess it works.

I flipped through Access Group’s and Gallup’s jointly produced report, “Life After Law School” (pdf), which surveyed a panel of 7,000 recent and not-so-recent law-school graduates of some Southeastern law schools. I don’t have much time or interest in picking apart the study, but I observe that the seven schools it chose are a pretty broad range, from older, established Vanderbilt to recent Elon. There aren’t any for-profits though.

I thought I’d illustrate some of “Life After Law School”‘s tables. There are times when tables are helpful, e.g. lists of law schools, and times when we prefer charts, like when we want to see trends. “Life After Law School” is a time for trends.

Here’s how graduates answered, “If I could do it again, I’d still get a law degree.”

If I could do it over again

“These results could reflect the lack of time more recent graduates have had to realize the value of their law degree or their greater difficulty in finding a good job after graduation.”

You can see growing dissatisfaction with law school among recent graduates.

And here’s, “My degree from LAW SCHOOL was worth the cost.”

My law degree

Again, growing dissatisfaction over the decades. I’ll not chart the report’s debt table because it doesn’t break the numbers down by approximate graduation year. Time is what we’re talking about.

So here’s a question: Do graduates become more satisfied with law school over time, or is this a phenomenon unique to recent grads? Predictably, Access Group believes the former; it says so in the introduction. “While [metrics of near-term earnings and job placement of recent graduates] have merit, they do not provide a holistic view of graduates’ lives or the broader benefits that legal education provides.” If the long-term picture looks good, then we can discount the experiences of recent graduates.

Alternatively, factors outside law schools and law degrees affect people’s job outcomes and happiness. For example, if demand for legal services stagnates, and universities keep opening law schools, and the costs rise without quantified benefits, then we should expect more people to be dissatisfied with law school.

Thus, “Life After Law School” echoes the After the JD study, whose own authors misinterpreted their results, treating survey responses as evidence of legal education’s value rather than the respondents’ perception of their legal educations’ values. Current circumstances feed into perceptions of past decisions. As always, the question is, were there better alternatives to law school when people chose to attend. Recent graduates’ jaundiced perception of law school indicates they believe there were better alternatives in hindsight. But that’s a question Access Group won’t ask.

A Simple Equation: Huge Debts + IBR = -(-(Default))

Simple, that is, for everyone but the letter-writers responding to the NYT editorial from two Sundays previous.

The objective of today’s outing isn’t to defend the Times as such but rather to draw attention to the sad rebuttals to it.

Argument #1: Law students are less likely to default on their student loans than undergrads.

Law students borrow more than undergrads, but most are able to repay, and do. The graduate student default rate is 7 percent versus 22 percent for undergrads.

[O]nly about 1.1 percent of alumni at Florida Coastal are in default.

[D]ata shows that law school graduates have lower default rates than other professional degree holders.

Response: It is true that the Times accused law schools of, “sticking taxpayers with the tab for their [students’] loan defaults,” but the line between “default” and “certain IBR/PAYE/REPAYE/PSLF loan cancelation” is hazy. Arithmetic tells us that with $130,000 of debt at current student loan interest rates, law-school debtors earning about $70,000 from day one cannot even dent their student loans’ principal. Because it’s unlikely these debtors will ever find high-paying jobs, it’s all but certain that large portions of their loans will be canceled.

It may not be default, but it’s only “repayment” in the technical sense. Better to call it “not-not-default.”

Argument #2: Thanks to scrupulous admissions practices, law school enrollments have declined.

Many law schools are downsizing to maintain standards. Since 2010, first-year enrollment has dropped from 52,500 to 37,900, a level last seen in 1973.

Since 2010, law schools have responded to the changed legal job market by dramatically cutting first-year enrollment by 28 percent.

Response: This is the most astonishing bit of revisionist law-school history I’ve seen. Remember five years ago (!) when Richard Matasar cited record law-school enrollments as evidence that applicants understood their job prospects? Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! Only 53,500 people applied to law school in 2015, down from 87,900 in 2010, and there’s evidence that fewer people applied in 2010 than the number of LSAT takers would’ve predicted. Law school admissions policies are not responsible for prospective applicants’ decision not to go to law school.

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(Sources: LSAC, ABA)

Also, law schools are admitting higher proportions of their applicants since 2010.

Dispersion of Full-Time Law School Applicant Acceptance Rates

(Source: Official Guide, author’s calculations)

Argument #3: Declining interest in law school will [create a disastrous attorney shortage/equalize supply and demand for lawyers].

[Due to falling enrollments] the rule of law may begin to fray. Our country needs lawyers, prosecutors, defenders and judges, not only lawyers in big cities and big law firms.

[A] law degree continues to be a sound investment over the course of a career. … [Falling enrollments] will bring supply more into line with demand.

Response: I lump these arguments together because they entail the same prediction: Job outcomes and wages for law grads will improve in the near future. Testing this belief with NALP data, it’s clear that law grads are much more likely to find themselves in J.D.-advantage jobs than in the past. If the job market for lawyers tightens, we’ll see graduates shift from these jobs to lawyer jobs. Instead, while the number of unemployed grads fell in 2014, so did the number of grads in 2-10-lawyer firm jobs. Meanwhile J.D.-advantage jobs rose. This doesn’t speak highly to the value of law school.

No. Grads Employed by Status (Incl. FT-PT) (NALP)

Additionally, based on various measures, including those provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are hundreds of thousands more law grads than there are lawyers. Many of these people left law voluntarily, e.g. they didn’t like law practice or they moved on to post-law professional careers (like the judiciary). Alternatively, they didn’t have opportunities for careers at the bar at all. As more lawyer jobs open up, presumably many of these people would come out of the woodwork. However, there are few indicators that demand for lawyers—which is what really matters here—is improving. Moreover, graduates reporting full-time, long-term employment might not stay in the law for long due to the profession’s high attrition rate.

Also, one letter-writer asserted that a law degree is “a sound investment” and that declining enrollments will “bring supply more into line with demand.” These statements contradict each other, albeit mildly. Although it’s possible the 5,000 class of 2013 graduates who were reported as unemployed will embark on professional careers in the future, it can’t be to their advantage if they graduated when supply was higher than demand could absorb.

Argument #4: Capping federal loans restricts the profession to the wealthy.

Capping graduate federal loans as the editors suggest would fall hardest on students from modest circumstances who will not be able to attend law school or will need to resort to private loans, which are typically more expensive, and repayment is not income-contingent.

[C]utting federal loans will only narrow the pool of people who can pursue a legal career and decrease the availability of lawyers to serve this need.

Response: Even with unlimited federal loans the legal profession isn’t accessible to the poor, but supposing these consequences are true, state governments could just make it easier for people to become lawyers, e.g. by reducing law to an undergraduate major. We have had lawyers without law schools—good ones even, and we’ve had bad lawyers with law schools.

Argument #5:

[T]aking loan money from law students is both bad economics and bad policy.

Response: No evidence is given to support these claims, but the existence of not-not-defaults discussed above disproves them. Also, we had lawyers with fewer loans to law students and dischargeability for private loans. This isn’t the distant past; it’s pre-2005.

Argument #6: Florida Coastal School of Law’s graduates rocked the February bar exam.

In February 2015 we had a 75 percent first-time bar pass rate, third best out of 11 law schools in the state, and an institutional ultimate pass rate of 87 percent.

Response: Fewer people typically sit for the February bar exam than the July one, so we have a sample problem. Also, don’t let FCSL’s 509 report fool you: Its graduates may pass the Florida bar at about a 75 percent rate, but at least 30 percent of its students don’t report at all. Florida State’s non-report rate is about 15 percent; U of Florida’s is less than 10 percent. Both of those schools have higher pass rates too.

Paul Campos addressed some of the other arguments by Florida Coastal’s dean.

Argument #7: The editorial ignores improvements to legal education, like more clinical courses.

[Law schools have] sharpened academic programs to provide the training employers seek.

In recent years, many law schools have been overhauling their programs to provide more hands-on skills training. Clinics cost more than big lectures, but they prepare lawyers for practice and teach them about their professional responsibility to serve people unable to pay for services.

Response:

Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs.

Better training does not create jobs (except for the trainers).

The one letter I’ll call out specifically is New York City Bar Association president Debra L. Raskin’s because … it leveled a coherent argument.

**********

I’ll not exhaustively nitpick everything here, but by focusing on law school debt the Times editorial is bringing out the kinds of arguments we can expect to see from academics defending the subsidies that ultimately flow to them. Some of the points I read here are novel, so it’s not an opportunity to waste.

Class of 2014 NALP Data: Unemployment, Small Firm Jobs Down

A few weeks back, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) uploaded its national summary chart that’s the basis for its Employment Report and Salary Survey (ERSS). It’s here (pdf). Two things worth noting: One, this year’s version doesn’t include the total number of graduates or the number who responded to the survey, making it impossible to determine non-responses. I have no idea why the NALP did this.

Since the class of 2013 ERSS appeared to use the same total number of grads as the ABA did that year, I’ll assume it’s 43,832 this year, which includes graduates from the three Puerto Rico law schools. Also, this year the ERSS changed 2-10-lawyer firms to 1-10-lawyer firms. I’m not sure if this is a typo or if it’s meant to separate graduates who work under solo practitioners as non-lawyers from graduates who start their own solo practices.

Okay, some analysis. Obviously this year’s ERSS confirms what’s been widely reported since the ABA’s version of the same data came out several months ago: Unemployment is down, as is the number of grads in bar-passage-required jobs, and with fewer graduates, the percentage of employed grads rose.

Here are charts of the number of graduates by employment status and the percent employed. (These exclude non-responses.)

No. Grads Employed by Status (NALP)

Percent Employed by Status (NALP)

These charts also illustrate the remarkable growth in J.D. advantage jobs over the years.

Here’s a detailed version graduate employment but with full-time and part-time status and only going back to 2007.

No. Grads Employed by Status (Incl. FT-PT) (NALP)

The question that I don’t think has been addressed is what kind of bar-passage-required jobs are responsible for the drop in that category. I won’t show all the math, but the answer is overwhelmingly private-practice, small-law firm jobs: 1/2-10-lawyer practices and solos.

No. Graduates Employed by Size of Firm (NALP)

Interestingly, the number and proportion of grads reported as starting their own practices did not change much since 2013 (-175 from 1,378). I draw two conclusions from this: One, small firms looking for new lawyers will need to look harder. I have no idea if that will push up wages in the future (there’s trivial evidence it has this year for full-time, wage-and-salary jobs). On the other hand, these could be eat-what-you-kill arrangements, which wouldn’t cost these firms much. Nominal wages for 1/2-10-lawyer practices are still way down from 2007, but the proportion of grads reporting wages is up, so this is a phenomenon to look for. The better these jobs pay, the better grads do overall: It’s the marginal graduate who matters most.

Speaking of whom, and this is my second thought, grads appear to prefer J.D.-advantage jobs and unemployment to small firm work. Given the definition of J.D. advantage, which is so broad that it likely includes graduates returning to their prior jobs, graduates’ employment “choices” don’t speak highly of small-firm work.

Thus, there is still much slack in the legal labor market, but it is improving. Big law isn’t hiring the way it used to, but fewer grads are working in smaller practices:

 

Cumulative Percent Change in Grads Employed in Law Firm Jobs by Firm Size (Index 2007=100) (NALP)

(Sorry this one is a little unclear.)

To conclude, this ERSS verifies the odd accounting identity explaining law graduate employment: The first people who don’t go to law school are the first ones to not be underemployed after graduating. Small beans for the thousands of unemployed grads though.

Site Update 2015-02-09: Law Graduate Overproduction Page

The update can be found here. (The 2011 edition has been moved here.)

To keep the analysis consistent with previous years, I used the class of 2013 even though data for the class on 2014 are available (and logged by moi). It’s a little problematic given that 2013 was the law graduate high tide, but that’s what happens when law schools enroll people without regard to employment outcomes.

I do not discussed the BLS’s proposed changes to its methodology for measuring occupational replacements. Assuming it’s approved, then for future versions, if the BLS separates annual replacement openings between those created by workers who leave the labor force and workers who move to different occupations, then I’ll use the labor force rate as the measure for “sustainable jobs.” It’s imperfect, but the same can be said of the current methodology.

I’ve also updated the site’s highly popular lawyers per capita by state page to include employed lawyers per capita and idle attorneys using the 2012 employment data. I am waiting on the ABA to update its national lawyer counts for 2014 and 2015. (They do plan on doing that right?)

At this time, I will brag that the Census Bureau’s press relations department cited my work on this topic last August.

BLS: One in Four Lawyers to Switch Occupations by 2022

…And if you know what that means, great, because there’re plenty of caveats I have to lay out for everyone else.

Steven Harper inspires me to check up on how things are going with the BLS’s proposed rule-change for estimating occupational replacement rates; there was an update on January 2nd. Apparently, the Employment Projections program released a spreadsheet with experimental 2012-2022 replacement and separations data alongside the numbers from the current methodology. I don’t think it was there before, but the BLS says it was. If so I wish I’d noticed it earlier as it’s quite interesting.

For one, my hunch in my American Lawyer article was correct: Under the new methodology between 2012 and 2022, 339,800 out of 759,800 lawyers would be replaced, and the growth rate, which is what we should be caring about because it’s not zero sum, doesn’t get changed. I like getting the numbers right. (Okay, I was off by a thousand.)

For another, the BLS goes further than I expected by separating the total occupational replacement rate into “labor force exits” and “occupational transfers,” which mean as they sound. Labor force exits are certainly going to include most retirements but also people exiting for parental leave and other, less common personal reasons. The labor force exit rate for lawyers is 17.1 percent, which compares strikingly well with the current methodology’s 16 percent replacement rate.

As for occupational transfers, as this post’s title states, it’s 25.5 percent. That’s the concept I’ve been most concerned about all along. These are lawyers who are leaving the profession for different types of jobs. To be clear, some of these transfers are preferable and some not. It includes lawyers who become judges with lawyers who become retail sales clerks. The interesting comparison—and the best I can give you—is with other occupations that require doctoral or professional degrees, sorted by size and occupational transfer rate.

OCCUPATION SOC CODE CURRENT METHOD NEW METHOD
REPLACEMENT RATE, 2012-22 OCCUPATIONAL TRANSFER RATE, 2012-22 LABOR FORCE EXIT RATE, 2012-22 OCCUPATIONAL SEPARATION RATE, 2012-22
Animal scientists 19-1011 33.3% 54.3% 22.2% 76.4%
Biochemists and biophysicists 19-1021 28.5% 54.1% 18.0% 72.1%
Medical scientists, except epidemiologists 19-1042 21.1% 51.3% 14.5% 65.9%
Computer and information research scientists 15-1111 15.7% 44.9% 11.2% 56.1%
Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists 19-3031 27.2% 42.1% 24.1% 66.3%
Physicists 19-2012 24.5% 38.8% 19.1% 57.9%
Astronomers 19-2011 24.5% 38.8% 19.1% 57.9%
Judicial law clerks 23-1012 16.2% 35.4% 27.5% 62.9%
Postsecondary teachers, all other 25-1199 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Health specialties teachers, postsecondary 25-1071 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Business teachers, postsecondary 25-1011 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
English language and literature teachers, postsecondary 25-1123 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Education teachers, postsecondary 25-1081 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Biological science teachers, postsecondary 25-1042 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Mathematical science teachers, postsecondary 25-1022 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Psychology teachers, postsecondary 25-1066 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Engineering teachers, postsecondary 25-1032 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Computer science teachers, postsecondary 25-1021 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Communications teachers, postsecondary 25-1122 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Foreign language and literature teachers, postsecondary 25-1124 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Philosophy and religion teachers, postsecondary 25-1126 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
History teachers, postsecondary 25-1125 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Chemistry teachers, postsecondary 25-1052 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Recreation and fitness studies teachers, postsecondary 25-1193 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Political science teachers, postsecondary 25-1065 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Sociology teachers, postsecondary 25-1067 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Law teachers, postsecondary 25-1112 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Physics teachers, postsecondary 25-1054 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Economics teachers, postsecondary 25-1063 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Criminal justice and law enforcement teachers, postsecondary 25-1111 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Atmospheric, earth, marine, and space sciences teachers, postsecondary 25-1051 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Agricultural sciences teachers, postsecondary 25-1041 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers, postsecondary 25-1062 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Social sciences teachers, postsecondary, all other 25-1069 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Social work teachers, postsecondary 25-1113 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Architecture teachers, postsecondary 25-1031 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Anthropology and archeology teachers, postsecondary 25-1061 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Environmental science teachers, postsecondary 25-1053 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Geography teachers, postsecondary 25-1064 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Library science teachers, postsecondary 25-1082 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Forestry and conservation science teachers, postsecondary 25-1043 15.0% 34.1% 32.9% 67.0%
Lawyers 23-1011 16.0% 25.5% 17.1% 42.6%
Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates 23-1023 16.0% 25.5% 17.1% 42.6%
Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers 23-1021 16.0% 25.5% 17.1% 42.6%
Physical therapists 29-1123 24.6% 23.6% 15.2% 38.8%
Pharmacists 29-1051 23.9% 20.5% 16.8% 37.4%
Audiologists 29-1181 20.7% 20.0% 14.5% 34.5%
Veterinarians 29-1131 32.1% 16.6% 14.5% 31.1%
Physicians and surgeons, all other 29-1069 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Family and general practitioners 29-1062 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Internists, general 29-1063 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Surgeons 29-1067 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Anesthesiologists 29-1061 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Pediatricians, general 29-1065 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Psychiatrists 29-1066 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Obstetricians and gynecologists 29-1064 25.0% 14.4% 14.6% 29.0%
Optometrists 29-1041 29.0% 14.0% 19.6% 33.6%
Chiropractors 29-1011 19.6% 13.6% 13.1% 26.8%
Dentists, general 29-1021 24.4% 12.7% 15.6% 28.3%
Orthodontists 29-1023 24.4% 12.7% 15.6% 28.3%
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons 29-1022 24.4% 12.7% 15.6% 28.3%
Dentists, all other specialists 29-1029 24.4% 12.7% 15.6% 28.3%
Prosthodontists 29-1024 24.4% 12.7% 15.6% 28.3%
Podiatrists 29-1081 20.7% 12.1% 11.1% 23.3%

I didn’t include it, but some of the occupations at the top with high turnover are quite tiny. There are only 2,700 animal scientists, for example, so my guess is there are still problems with the data. You’ll also note that many of the stats tend to clump together by occupation types, e.g. the 33 postsecondary instructor classes, which all have the same replacement rates, for both the new and old methodologies.

But the real money is in comparisons among the professional occupations, which are generally doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Lawyers’ occupational transfer rate is double doctors’ and dentists’. The medical occupations’ replacement rates under the current methodology are only a few percentage points lower than the total occupational separation rate under the new one, but the same can’t be said for attorneys’.

I’m not sure how reliable these experimental data are, but they do tend to show that there’s more turnover for lawyers than the other professions they’re most often compared to. (Ironically there’s even more turnover for postsecondary law instructors.) And I’m not even getting into job quality. I wouldn’t say this is especially strong evidence of a high turnover rate for lawyers, but it’s another piece that fits in that puzzle.

The BLS (still) says it’ll give us another update early this year, but I hope to write on other topics.

10 Ways to Falsify Law Graduate Employment Doomsayers

I begin 2015’s first substantive post by invoking the right of listicle clickbait.

A loose end from December is Loyola Law School, Los Angeles professor Theodore Seto’s response to my American Lawyer article on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ proposed change to how it measures the replacement rate for lawyers. For Professor Seto, I have good news and better news.

The good news is that when he writes that he’s flattered that I’d respond to his article, he need not be. Of course I was going to write on the topic for The American Lawyer anyway, but his first article usefully illustrated the kind of thinking I cautioned against when I broke the story in early November.

The better news is that his closing line raises an interesting question worthy of further consideration. He writes:

But we should all remember (myself included) that the best legal counselors, when faced with new evidence, adjust their advice accordingly. They do not simply attack the evidence.

Let’s not discuss whether I was attacking new evidence. Readers can compare my article to Seto’s for themselves. Instead, if I interpret Seto fairly here (and he says I didn’t do that for his other article, so I tread lightly), he’s implying that I or perhaps others make unfalsifiable claims about the future of law graduate employment—that we unfairly dismiss any favorable news about graduates’ prospects because it contradicts our dogmatic positions that law school is a poor decision in probably most circumstances.

If so, he’s incorrect. My beliefs are falsifiable, and because the topic of falsifiability arose on this blog two more times in the last month, I’m inspired to write on it. So, here’s a list of events one could point to (and would probably need to) to predict that things will be better for grads in 2016.

(1)  The absolute number of graduates in the classes of 2014 and 2015 employed in full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required, non-school-funded jobs rises. No one disputes that employment percentages will improve on account of there being fewer graduates, but the best way to show that graduates are finding jobs is … showing that graduates are finding jobs. Similarly, I’d like to see evidence that grads are finding better jobs. That could be the NALP reporting that grads are shifting into lawyer jobs at law firms larger than the 2-10 bracket, though 2013 toed in the right direction.

No. Graduates Employed by Size of Firm (NALP)

You can slag biglaw all you want, but it tends to pay better. Likewise, wage growth in the 25th percentile for law grads is absolutely necessary if anyone wants to convince me that law school is better than going back to college for a more lucrative bachelor’s degree, but technically that’s a slightly different issue.

* Note: At this time I’m not too concerned that the ABA’s decision to give law schools a tenth month to report their graduate employment data will substantially impair any comparisons to previous years.

(more…)

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.]