In their paper, Simkovic and McIntyre compare Census Bureau and National
Education Longitudinal Study income data for law degree holders to the
incomes of mere college graduates for the time period spanning 1996 to
2011. They calculate that law degrees add a median $32,300 in annual
earnings and a median $420,000 in after-federal-income-tax lifetime
earnings over college degrees. The authors conclude that these figures
justify enrolling in law school, contradicting critics warning that law
school is an "irrational" investment. But what really grabbed people's
attention was the paper's magic, seven-digit number: A law degree's mean
pretax net earnings bonus is a cool million dollars. ...
Although the criticisms offered by Mystal and others are well-founded,
they miss the even more troubling problems embedded within "Economic
Value": The paper's causal theory for explaining the law degree's income
bonus is nonsense because it assumes law school pays off equally for
non-lawyers, a notion that diminishes the relevance of the authors'
findings. Even if its income calculations were applicable to the real
world, they in no way call into question reformers' criticisms of legal
education, so on that score the paper amounts to a non-sequitur. ...
Even if its findings were applicable to reality, academics and media outlets
eagerly heralding "Economic Value" as fundamentally changing the debate
over legal education will be disappointed to learn that the paper's
findings support no such position. ...
Ultimately, anyone who believes "Economic Value" applies to the law
school debate in any way fails to recognize that the debate is
fundamentally distributional in character. It only concerns how much of
the social surplus should go to law schools. One could agree with
"Economic Values"'s numbers and still believe the above points are true.
Many people have pounded the drum for more longitudinal data on law
graduate earnings outcomes, and "Economic Value" delivers them.
Lamentably, the paper shortchanges both itself and the legal education
debate by assuming that law degrees intrinsically increase earnings.
Despite its detailed econometric methodology, "Economic Value" answers
the questions it takes on much too broadly, and it certainly shouldn't
convince anyone that there are too few law schools, that most aren't
overpriced, that legal education can't benefit from substantial reforms,
or that students will be able to repay their debts from their incomes.