Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Tamanaha Responds to Leiter (and Leiter Replies)

Following up on yesterday's post, Leiter's Reflections on The Economic Value of a Law Degree:

S&M have issued a torrent of words in response to my various criticisms, but what they have not justified is their earnings comparison between the bottom 25th percentile law grads and the bottom 25th percentile bachelor’s holders. This flies in the face of their finding that law grads are above average in GPA’s and test scores, in wealth, in quality of undergraduate college, etc. If we believe that 25th percentile law grads, had they not gone to law school, would likely have been as successful as median bachelor’s holders, their conclusion fundamentally changes. …

When stripped to its core, S&M’s argument is that the past generation of law grads (who entered law school in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) reaped an earnings premium of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” at the 25th percentile, and therefore, current law students will reap the same. If we don’t know whether this pattern will hold, however, then how can they (and Leiter) express such confidence that people who chose to forgo law school today are making a terrible mistake?

Leiter weakly papers this over by saying S&M “adduce some evidence” that the pattern will continue. But we must not forget that their study omits the dismal results suffered by law grads from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and counting. (That’s about 200,000 new law grads not captured in their study.) And lots of people, including managing partners of law firms, have expressed the view that the legal job market is undergoing a fundamental transition. The bottom line is that we don’t know. So how can Leiter condemn me for being wrong when the ultimate answer turns on this unresolved question?

Predictably, Brian Tamanaha was not happy with the preceding, but I'll try to be succinct: ... (4) anyone who reviews Tamanaha's postings can see how utterly ludicrous it is for him now to pretend that he acknowledged the evidence that Simkovic & McIntyre adduced in support of the proposition that the current recession in the legal market is well within the parameters of past economic cycles in the legal profession; (5) I am agnostic on Tamanaha's motives, and do not think my correspondent meant "profitable enterprise" literally. I do think his work, in both legal theory and on legal education, exemplifies a pattern of careless scholarship, which is why I noted my one discussion of the former by way of evidence.

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It strikes me that the best way to move this forward in a way that might generate more light than heat (and perhaps Tamanaha and Leiter are not the best people to do that) is to stay focused on Leiter's point 1. The anecdotal/intuitive case that S&M are using the wrong percentile of B.A.-only adults as their baseline seems very strong to me, but it seems difficult to figure out what to use instead (i.e., what X do you use for the methodological assumption that the 25th percentile law-degree holder would absent the law degree have the lifetime earnings of the Xth percentile B.A.-only holder). I don't know how far X would have to be above 25 for the earnings premium S & M identified to become immaterial, but I assume doing that math is not that hard if we could agree on the right value for X. Eric Rasmusen's contribution a few posts back trying to infer in a back-of-the-envelope way the sort of undergraduate schools the median Albany Law or William Mitchell law student might have been able to get into (using LSAT as a proxy for SAT) was, I think, a step in the right direction.

Posted by: JWB | Jul 31, 2013 8:28:36 AM