This data refutes some of the arguments made by those who say law
school is a “scam.” It is no surprise that this study would be attacked
by many of the same people. After all, the law school scam industry has
been bountiful for some, just like being a Kardashian.
To be fair, this criticism is also well intentioned. These
commentators are springing to the defense of real law students who
cannot find jobs. But it is simply that, and when the rhetoric dies
down, perhaps this paper will turn to a more serious and needed study of
what is going on in the law market and what the true value of a law
degree really is. (And yes, in fair disclosure, my bias is that of a
tenured professor at a major law school.)
In particular, even beyond its salary points, the paper by Professors
Simkovic and McIntyre makes a number of new points that should inform
the debate. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on lawyer salaries is often
cited to justify the assertion that law school is not economically
justified based on current lawyer salaries.
The study’s first major point is that these Bureau of Labor
Statistics figures are probably biased downward. The reason is that the
numbers do not include the salaries of self-employed lawyer, who are not
only sole practitioners but also mostly law firm partners....
The study’s second major point is that loan default rates for law graduates are much lower than for college graduates....
The study’s third major point is that about 40 percent of lawyers
currently do not practice law. Much has been said about the number of
law school graduates who are not finding law jobs, and surely there are
many who do want law jobs but cannot find one.The full-time employment rate for law graduates who obtained legal
jobs was only at 56.2 percent last year, according to the American Bar
Association. But given these figures, it appears this has always been
the case, and it is hard not to conclude that many lawyers do not go to
law school to be lawyers (again, no one has really looked to see if this
is true or not, though). Indeed, according to the Simkovic-McIntyre
study, 50 percent of senators and 10 percent of chief executives at
large companies are lawyers....
Ultimately, that is what the debate over law school boils down to
these days. Will the recent turbulence persist, or will the historical
data win out? If the current figures represent the new normal, something
about law has changed and there will be fewer jobs going forward.
But that may not be the case. The market may recover, as markets tend
to do and as the population grows. There may even be more legal jobs
if, for example, the Dodd-Frank Act becomes a full-employment act for
As for the argument that technology has changed everything in the law
market, I was struck by a quote in a study from the Harvard Law Review
in 1901, decrying modern technology by stating, “[t]he stenographer and
the typewriter have monopolized what was his work … and he sits outside
of the business tide.”
This quote from a hundred years ago shows that claiming change is
afoot – bringing obsolescence and wholesale disruption in the law market
– is a century-old phenomenon. The question is whether this time is
[Simkovic-McIntyre] find that law school grads get a median earnings bump of $32,300
per year, and a mean bump of $53,300 a year. The premium grows as the
The biggest weakness of the study, undoubtedly, is that it doesn’t
include classes that graduated during the recession. It can’t, as there
just isn’t information, but it’s totally fair to argue that something
has changed that the current data don’t capture. But Simkovic and
McIntyre demonstrate pretty convincingly that the case that way too many
people are going to law school is, at best, speculative. It requires
arguing that longstanding trends in earnings numbers are all of a sudden
stopping because of the recession, without much evidence that a change
that large is happening.
There’s a case to be made there. But if the last few decades were
not, in fact, an anomaly, law school remains a really, really good
investment for most students.