…Is the topic of my latest article on The American Lawyer.
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.
Also, law schools are admitting higher proportions of their applicants since 2010.
(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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
(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.
Haven’t done a links post in a while, but there are a few things worth writing about in brief.
Of course, that doesn’t mean going to law school is still worth it because, of course, the article carefully points out that not all law school graduates work in high-paying professional jobs and lawyers have a notably high attrition rate.
Wait, it didn’t point that out? Oops. Then maybe we shouldn’t be saying that the return to law school is so high. (I should add that the underlying paper at least discusses this.)
Fun fact: BuzzFeed does investigative reporting. I’m happy to serve it a compliment. What it found is that everyone’s favorite legal disruptive innovator is making money by … charging federal student loan debtors $700 to sign them on to income-sensitive repayment plans. Which they can do for free on their own. LegalZoom swears it’s informing borrowers of that fact, but that’s not what happened when BuzzFeed‘s reporter called in posing as a debtor. (Yes, really. This is what journalists are supposed to do.)
Did I mention that a couple weeks ago New York’s Student Protection Unit shut down a financial services company for charging student debtors money for signing them onto IBR plans without telling them they could do so for free? Did I also mention it paid a $10,000 fine? Does anyone call these companies legal disruptive innovators?
Now, to editorialize: If you couldn’t tell, I think LegalZoom’s impact is hyped, UPL or not. It’s quite possible that it makes money by (a) offering services lawyers wouldn’t charge for, as in the above case, or (b) serving clients for legal issues they might not bother going to a lawyer for anyway, e.g. a no-income, no-asset, few creditors, chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Neither of these activities takes business from traditional lawyers.
In fact, in 2014 30 percent of LegalZoom’s revenue came from subscription fees, meaning it wasn’t selling actual legal services. Also, one of its biggest sources of revenue appears to be incorporation documents for California businesses. Perhaps it offers needed services, but consumer regulators need to catch up with it.
Yeah, this link is for me. Because readers forwarded around my post applying the Gainful Employment rule to all law schools, I went back and updated it so that the table showed only the results from the total income test. I figure in case researchers want to cite it or replicate my results, they’ll have an easier time understanding what I was doing. I realized that the results of both tests produce the equivalent number, so even if a law schools’ graduates’ discretionary incomes are lower, the table now shows the equivalent income graduates would need to be making. I didn’t update the post’s text, so bear that in mind.
A generous reader has nominated the LSTB for the Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Contest. You can read about it here. As ever, I am grateful to you, my readers, for your support.
The ABA released the class of 2014’s employment information last week, and there are enough differences to warrant an update to this post, namely that I’d forgotten that the ABA accredited Lincoln Memorial University late last fall. Most of the figures remain the same, but to keep Web traffic to one post, I’m retaining the original “leaked” version at the bottom but striking it out. I’ve also changed the title.
We have 43,195 people who graduated from an ABA-accredited law school outside of Puerto Rico between September 1, 2013, and August 31, 2014. The employment information is good as of March 15, 2015. Readers likely know that the ABA now collects data as of ten months from the typical graduation date rather than nine. I don’t think there’s too much of an impact by the change except to applicants this year who might have wanted to rely on the data.
The tables are below the fold to conserve blog space.
…Which is unsurprising.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) updated its Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program data for 2014, and since the topic of what the BLS programs are actually measuring came up in the context of the latest analysis on the alleged J.D. premium, now is a good time to report on the data. Here is what lawyer employment looks like over time based on various BLS measures.
Aside from some growth in 2014, of interest is the discrepancy between the Current Population Survey’s (CPS’s) and the Employment Projection program’s (EP program’s) lawyer estimates. It’s been there for a while. Technically, the CPS is considered more reliable, but when discussing lawyer projections, the EP program’s numbers are appropriate. The CPS measures people in an occupation, not the number of job positions, which can be held by multiple persons. I think the CPS overstates the number of employed lawyers. Both measures include part-time lawyers and self-employed lawyers in all industries.
The CPS’s full-time wage and salary lawyer measure is similar to the OES program’s measure as they both exclude self-employed attorneys, but the OES program includes part-time workers. Finally, the number of legal sector attorneys is the subset of the OES lawyers working in the legal sector, and according to the link above, 71 percent of all lawyer positions are in the legal sector.
As for lawyers’ wages, they’re largely flat, but the median has fallen since 2009.
It’s useful to compare lawyers’ wages to paralegals’. This year, the top 10 percent of paralegals earned more than the bottom 25 percent of wage and salaried lawyers, but some of that is probably a comparison between full-time and part-time workers.
Detailed information on what the BLS programs measure can be found on the lawyer overproduction page, which I strongly recommend for anyone who is unfamiliar on the materials (*cough* law profs *cough*–Sorry, allergies). Although, it has not been updated regarding the BLS’s proposal to alter the replacement estimate used in the lawyer projections. That will come later. Lawyer employment in and of itself is not a bellwether for the future of the legal profession; it’s just worth tracking. Aside from the lawyer overproduction page, readers are advised to look at my criteria for predicting improvements in law graduate outcomes.
That’s all for now. Peace.
71 percent of employed lawyers, that is. We’re not talking about people who are on the rolls but aren’t working.
I haven’t carefully read through all of Michael Simkovic’s and Frank McIntyre’s most recent analysis in law graduate earnings, but it looks like they’re still uninterested in exploring the possibility that law grads’ earnings are attributable to demand-side factors, like price or income elasticity of demand for lawyers’ services. Because they don’t show us that law students who complete all the required law school course work without graduating have the same earnings as law graduates, anything they say about a JD premium is premature. Such an analysis is crucial because one of their own citations, David Card’s 1999, “The Causal Effect of Education on Earnings,” indicates that law grads earn substantially more than the trend would suggest. This finding screams for testing, but Simkovic and McIntyre aren’t careful enough researchers to do that.
Thus, it follows that their comparisons between law grads and college grads in “Timing Law School” are equally inadmissible. Indeed, I may not bother commenting on “Timing” at length at all.
However, I did decide that a little procrastination is good for the human spirit (and entertaining to the reader), so I poked around “Timing” to see what errors I could find. I’ll showcase one.
On page 17 Simkovic and McIntyre write:
Based on initial outcomes for recent graduates and qualitative factors, Henderson and Zahorsky argue that the legal profession is experiencing a “structural shift” due to globalization and technological change.34 Others point to a decline in the size of “legal services” (law firms) relative to GDP.35 What this means for law school graduates is uncertain, since most legal services workers are not lawyers,36 and many law graduates work in fields other than legal services.37
Footnote 36 uses the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) database to show that “out of more than 1.1 million legal services workers, only 375 thousand were lawyers. Other occupations include paralegals, secretaries, bookkeepers and computer support and business specialists.”
And footnote 37 says:
Around 60 percent of law graduates practice law. Simkovic and McIntyre, supra [“Economic Value of a Law Degree”] at 252. Of those working as lawyers, around 65 percent work in “legal services.” United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, supra note 36. Some of the non-lawyers working in legal services have law degrees.
In other words, the authors bury in a footnote the fact that 65 percent of lawyers work in legal services, so they can claim that it’s unclear how economic swings affecting the legal services sector would in turn affect law grads because most workers there aren’t lawyers. Being mindful of the distinction between law grads and lawyers, it’s nevertheless pretty bizarre to believe that the one industry law school prepares people for most would have a trivial impact on their earnings. The only alternative interpretation is for Simkovic and McIntyre to show that the legal sector is laying off everyone but its lawyers—and admittedly (again, in a footnote) malemployed law grads.
The foregoing aside, their math is still incorrect. It’s true that 375,000 legal sector lawyers out of the 592,670 total in the OES equals 63 percent, but that’s not the full number of lawyers. Why? Because the OES omits self-employed workers, which feature prominently in the legal profession. This is an pitfall that I either first noticed or was pointed out to me when I started writing on law schools nearly five years ago, so it’s amusing to see Simkovic and McIntyre make it.
In 2012, the BLS’s Employment Projections program found 759,800 employed lawyers, of which 374,900 were legal sector wage-and-salary employees. According to the BLS’s estimate of the distribution of lawyers among industries (xls), 165,700 lawyers were self-employed workers. It’s just about impossible for these folks to not be working in the legal sector, and indeed, if one looks at the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ National Income and Product Accounts tables, one finds that self-employed workers are included in the category “Persons Engaged in Production by Industry” (Table 6.8D).
As a result, 540,600 lawyers out of 759,800 lawyers—71 percent—work in the legal services sector, not 63 percent. These scant 8 percentage points sure make it look more persuasive to me that what goes on in the legal sector influences law grads’ earnings. (Oh, and I add that another 17 percent of all lawyers work in government. Is that sector robustly hiring lawyers?)
I don’t expect those 8 percentage points to persuade Simkovic and McIntyre, though. They’ve gotten plenty of mileage asking the legal profession to accept on an untested, pure human capital hypothesis that law school pays off even if the legal sector implodes. They can at least include self-employed lawyers in their adverse footnotes.