When I went to law school, lo these many years ago during the Clinton Administration, I heard pretty much two kinds of stories about what came after the bar exam.
The first story was of happiness and nirvana obtained through the grasping of the Brass Ring: a job as an associate in a prestige firm with a comfortable salary and interesting work. “So-and-so got in to the securities section at Arrogant, Expensive, and Condescending — she just paid cash for a brand-new BMW!” The story was ostensibly told to share happiness in Ms. So-and-So’s success, but also so that the listened could covet Ms. So-and-So’s affluent life.
The other story was told with the graduate school equivalent of the tale’s teller pointing a flashlight at her blue-blooded chin from below, for it was a tale of fear and horror. “Other Guy didn’t get an offer. He’s bagging groceries to pay his bills!” This could happen to you, the story implied, so you’d better get yourself that awesome Prestige Firm Job and maybe you ought not to make so many snarky jokes the way Mr. Other Guy had done, because clearly he was Finally Getting His Comeuppance for Something Bad He Had Done.
I know, it seems a little bit like high school. Except much more materialistic. Nothing really has changed since these long-ago days. Law school is still ridiculously expensive. But there is still the allure of ridiculously lucrative jobs. And still the fear of no job at all to go along with the student loan debt.
So when I happen upon a back-and-forth on memeorandum concerning an academic study of the earning power of a J.D., it draws me in like a magnet. The authors of the study “estimate the mean pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree [is] approximately $1,000,000.” Well. That makes me a millionaire, doesn’t it? And as one of the two authors argues, the recent proliferation of both statistics and apocrypha concerning the paucity of legal employment is not the fault of the expensive law degree:
It’s not the case that the law degree stopped working. It’s just the case that it’s a recession … . And the people with law degrees are still doing a lot better than people with only bachelor’s degrees.
This is a direct challenge to the Paul Camposes of the world who maintain that…
…[L]egal academia is operating on the basis of an unsustainable economic model, which requires most law students to borrow more money to get law degrees than it makes sense for them to borrow, given their career prospects.
Now let’s get to the numbers. Using U.S. Census data and their own information gathering and analysis, Profs. Simkovic and McIntyre conclude that the mean premium on a law school graduate’s lifetime earnings (compared to the earnings of a similar person with only a baccalaureate degree) is that $1,000,000 figure, where the percentile figures are: 25th percentile, premium of $350,000; 50th percentile, premium of $600,000; 75th percentile, premium of $1,100,000. Interestingly, in the lower percentiles, women are projected to earn more than men, but at the higher percentiles, men are projected to earn more than women.
Of course, the ability to prognosticate future earnings in an ever-shifting commercial environment is a bit like predicting natural disasters.
I know you’re all just dying for my opinion.
First, it’s sort of silly to economically value a thing without first figuring out what that thing costs. And this study does not do that. “People are paying so many different prices. It would be really complicated and take up a lot of space to include a lot of the possibilities.” That’s right — the study ignores the difference in cost between Stanford Law and the University of West Los Angeles, because the authors found that it would be too difficult to track these things.
They’re right, of course. The real cost of a law degree must take into account what the law student actually pays — which for some might be less than three years’ tuition, but for most will be considerably more because student loans are payable out over ten, fifteen, twenty, or if consolidation occurs, twenty-five to thirty, years after getting the degree. A $1,000 a month in student loan payments for twenty years is going to have a non-trivial effect on a lawyer’s net lifetime income.
Second, as Elie Mystal points out at Above the Law, isn’t it reasonable to assume that there is a foreseeable earning disparity between the Stanford and University of West Los Angeles degrees? Which graduate is more likely to fall within the 75th percentile as opposed to the 25th percentile? (Hint: law school prestige matters, at least when you’re going for a job with a prestige firm.) I’m unimpressed with Prof. Simkovic’s rebuttal posted in Mystal’s postscript.
Third, this is kind of an apples-and-oranges problem. Profs. Simkovic and McIntyre analyzed the question of lifetime earning capacity for J.D.’s versus holders of bachelor’s degrees. But a J.D. is a graduate degree. It is not surprising at all that your typical holder of a graduate degree earns better money than does your typical holder of only an undergraduate degree. Of course, so do other kinds of people who hold graduate degrees or high-level technical designations: M.D., MBAs, any of a number of tech or computer certifications, and the list goes on. Does the holder of a J.D. make more over her lifetime than a CPA or a medical doctor or a college professor? We will need another study to find out.
So it might not be surprising to learn that lawyers are, on average, well-paid compared even to many other kinds of professionals. But then again, I would not be all that surprised to learn that they aren’t.
Fourth, law school remains synonymous in my mind with a career practicing law. But that’s not necessarily true for everyone, and it may very well be less true as we move from the lower to the higher earnings percentiles. As the Gray Lady‘s columnist points out, it may well be the case that nearly half of law school graduates do not go on to practice law, at least not for significant amounts of time in their careers. Blows my mind, I tell you — if you’re going to be a CEO or found a big company, why are you taking three years out of your life to go to law school? Just go do the business thing and make the big money!
Fifth, the juris doctorate’s income premium, even if exactly as real and as documented by Simkovic and McIntyre, may not be so extraordinary as it seems. A million dollars seems like a lot of money. Spread out over thirty to thirty-five years, it’s less than thirty thousand dollars per year, on average. And a lot of the premium earnings for a lot of the lawyers are going to come later in their careers. (If they come at all, of course.)
Profs. Simkovic and McIntyre have pointed out that you make more money with a graduate degree than without one, and that there are some lawyers who make a whole lot of money. The American Lawyer reports that the average partner in an AmLaw 100 firm (these are the really big ones) makes over a million dollars a year in pre-tax partnership profits. But that number again may conceal more than it reveals: the partners in the AmLaw 50 firms make a lot more than the partners in the lower half of the AmLaw 100.
If you’re getting the idea that there’s only a few haves who are raking in big bucks, and a whole lot of have-nots who are making enough money to have comfortable but not extraordinary lifestyles, that would be pretty much my view of things. The bend on that curve is likely to be pretty sharp, and there’s a long tail that comes after the tall head.
What bugs me about the Simkovic-McIntyre study is that it suggests that the typical law school graduate can look forward to making it out of the long tail and breaking in to the tall head — to topping out the curve. I don’t think that’s realistic. Yes, it can happen. But just like a kid who is pretty good at baseball in high school can dream about making it to the big leagues, but will probably play A and AA ball for most of his career, so too will most students who mortgage their futures on a law degree never really get into the income stratosphere.
Life down in the troposphere is not bad. As I say, lawyers of reasonable skill and diligence can readily make a comfortable middle-class sort of living. Which is nothing to complain about.
Profs. Simkovic and McIntyre’s paper places some big numbers somewhat unfairly against some smaller numbers, and fail to include some other big numbers, and thereby create the illusion that the Juris Doctorate is very valuable. But to say a J.D. is “very” valuable as an income-enhancing degree would be, both on the face of the study and when compared to experience, more than either is accurate or than the data support.
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