Paul L. Caron

Monday, July 26, 2010

NY Times: The Two-Track Lawyer Market

Following up on last week's post, Class of 2009 Employment Data: Jobs Down, Salaries Flat:

New York Times, The Two-Track Lawyer Market:

One of the most-watched statistics in any profession is the average salary. [NALP] does indeed report a figure for average new lawyer’s salary — somewhere around $90,000, depending on how you weight the pay at big firms — but few knowledgeable observers put much stock in it. A look at the distribution of salaries for first-year lawyers helps explain why:

DESCRIPTION Note: The graph is based on 19,513 salaries. More complete salary coverage for jobs at large law firms heightens this peak and diminishes the left-hand peaks — and shows that the unadjusted mean overstates the average starting salary by about 10%. For purposes of this graph, all reported salaries were rounded to the nearest $5,000.

Salaries for first-year lawyers seem to congregate in two camps: those who earn about $45,000 to $65,000 a year (representing about 34% of reported salaries), and those who earn about $160,000 a year (representing about 25% of reported salaries). Very few newly minted lawyers actually receive “average” or even median pay.

The Volokh Conspiracy, The Bimodal Distribution of Lawyer Pay, by Ilya Somin (George Mason):

There is no doubt that only a minority of new lawyers will get 160K starting salaries and that most will earn a great deal less than that. This is not a new finding by any means. Still, the NALP data does not change the fact that most lawyers earn quite impressive incomes. It is important to remember several key points that have been absent from most of the discussion of the data so far.

First, these are merely entry-level first year salaries. ...

Second, the data for the Class of 2009 are taken from a year that saw the worst economic downturn in some 30 years. ...

Furthermore, the NALP data for the class of 2009 show that the median graduate has a salary of about $72,000; in other words, 50% of first year lawyers can expect to make that much or more. Even if you adjust the figure downward a little to reflect reporting rates skewed in favor of large firms, you still get a level of perhaps $65,000 based on the formula that NALP used to recalculate the mean salary (reducing the initial estimate by about 9%). That’s not bad for an entry level salary in the middle of a deep recession. 

I certainly don’t wish to suggest that law is the best career path for everyone, or even for more than a minority of college graduates. Some can certainly make more money elsewhere, though there are not many professions that offer comparable salaries to liberal arts graduates with few or no math and science skills. Even among those who can’t earn as much in a different field, it might be reasonable to go into a profession that has more interesting work or shorter hours. In my view, too many people choose law school as a sort of default option without fully considering the alternatives. That said, recent complaints about lawyer pay are overblown, and the NALP data does not change that fact.

Since I am a law professor, some will be tempted to dismiss my comments on this issue on the ground that I have a self-interest in encouraging more people to go to law school. Perhaps so. But I have advocated many policy reforms that are not in the interest of either lawyers or law professors, including reducing the size and complexity of government (which would depress demand for both lawyers and legal academics) and abolishing the legal requirement that people must attend law school before entering the legal profession. In any event, the validity of any argument is independent of advocates’ motives for making it.

InstaPundit, Law School Graduates Face a Bimodal Salary Curve, by Glenn Reynolds (Tennessee): "[Y]ou’ve got two humps — a lower one, where the salaries for most law school graduates cluster, and a much higher one, centered around what those who go to big firms make. The important thing, in calculating the risk/return ratio of time and money on law school, is figuring out which of the two you’re likely to end up in."

(Hat Tip: Brad Mank.)

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It's a really weird phenomenon, but perhaps the explanation lies in a two tiers of legal clients. One tier is large corporations with huge budgets who pay gigantic 7 figure fees for their work (and if a firm can afford to pay its partners 7 figure salaries then it can afford to pay an associate a relatively meager 160k). The other tier is the average consumer with mundane day to day needs (real estate, bankruptcy, divorce) who pays with their credit card. At these firm the partners make low six figures and of course that means the juniors can only make $50k.

Posted by: anon | Jul 26, 2010 3:56:20 PM

Don't quit your day job Prof. Somin. There are 19,513 respondents from around 400 or so schools, so unless there are only 50 graduates from each school or the numbers could be trusted to be representative of the masses that didn't answer the survey, this only tells me how the kids on law review fared. So as far as I can tell, the median salary is $0.00.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 26, 2010 4:11:07 PM