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Brian Tamanaha Says We Should Look at the Below Average Outcomes (And We Did)

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36 Responses

  1. Ken Rhodes says:

    When I read an investment advertisement I am used to seeing the imprimatur “Past results are not a guarantee of future performance.”

    I know that this paper does not “guarantee” future results, but it definitely does predict them. Any comments I’ve heard or red about financial concerns for new law school graduates have emphasized differences between current (and future) conditions and the past conditions that have made the law a financially rewarding profession. A prediction for the future based on statistics of the past seems to be based on a somewhat shaky assumption of consistency.

  2. Michael Simkovic says:

    Ken,

    This is a great point. We discuss it at length in the article, and will also discuss in a future blog post.

    For more on this issue, read pages 31 to 38, and also the conclusion.

    You can download the article here:
    http://ssrn.com/abstract=2250585

  3. Derek Tokaz says:

    “the law degree reduces the risk of financial hardship”

    A graduate with $100,000 of debt at 6.8% interest needs to earn $156,000 to not be in “partial financial hardship” (as defined by the Department of Education). A graduate with $150,000 of debt needs to earn $225,000.

    Even at the low end of the debt spectrum, a graduate with $50,000 in loans still needs to earn $87,000 a year, which is well above the median starting salary.

    It would seem that rather than reducing the risk of financial hardship, a JD almost guarantees it.

  4. Brian Tamanaha says:

    Michael and Frank,

    I will make three points/questions in response. Against the argument in my book, you apparently believe that expensive low ranked law schools are not a risky financial proposition for students–that even most of the students who attend these schools will end up obtaining an earnings premium of hundreds of thousands of dollars. That is good news, if correct. But let’s use concrete examples to explore this (which is how my analysis was structured).

    Thomas Jefferson Law School class of 2012 had average debt of $168,800–adding interest accrued and average undergraduate debt brings the total to $200,000 on graduation day. Only 29% had landed full-time jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation, the majority earning $60,000 or less. (Notice, by the way that the non-lawyer proportion of the class (7/10) is much higher than the pool you studied (3/5), which presumably will bring down the expected return of the group.)

    Is it your contention that–when tuition, opportunity cost, and interest are subtracted–TJLS students will still earn hundreds of thousands (statistically speaking of course)? And the same goes for Cal Western, NYLS, Southwestern, Phoenix, etc, all with very high debt and poor job results.

    Or put it more concretely, would you tell a friend that she will probably come out handily ahead even if she went to one of these law schools at full price? (I use “she” because I would like to hear an answer for a female student as well as male.)

    Ken’s question (above) cannot be severed from the answer to my question. My book is an examination of the current situation for students and prospective students, whereas your analysis extrapolates from the results of the past generation. Not only has tuition nearly doubled in the past dozen years at private law schools (and debt with it), we are now in the worst market for legal jobs in decades (according to NALP). The legal job market appears to be firming up, recent layoffs aside, but there is nigh universal agreement that the heady days of the mid-2000s are gone for good (NALP has repeated this).

    You argue that this is merely a cyclical down turn (not structural) and things will soon return to the historical norm you claim exists. Let’s hope so. But if you are wrong, then isn’t it true that your economic return figures are overly optimistic for current and future students? (Economist say that people who enter job markets during recessions can expect reduced earnings over their careers–which I assume applies to a downward structural adjustment in a given field.)

    Finally, your claim about the earnings premium from a JD attributes that premium to the skills and knowledge students obtain while in law school. As I argue in my book, law students are typically a smart and motivated bunch, and would have obtained above average earnings in other fields with their talents had they not gone to law school. You claim that you statistically show that the additional earnings obtained by non-lawyers are from the JD degree, not from their personal abilities. Please tell us how confident you are in this conclusion. (Your analysis appears to leave much leeway on this crucial point.) After all, if it is true that most of the premium you show is from their ability, not the JD, then the non-lawyers would have been far better off had they not gone to law school.

    Thanks

  5. teo says:

    I disagree with some of this research because I think it’s too neatly bucketed. For example, you state that the top tier law schools have a sizeable income increase of $1.1MM over the typical bachelor degreed individual. And yet many of us know people who went to Michigan or to Duke who are unemployed. It’s anecdotal, for sure, but this isn’t irrelevant.

    Moreover, depending on where — geographically — a person graduates, their law school tier may have different meanings. Marquette’s a good example, where the graduates get a Milwaukee market with no law school competitor. And so is Boston College, where graduates get a market loaded with new attorneys.

    Second, your research ignores things like interest rates and overall debt. For example, I graduated from a middle-tier law school in the 1990s and I am happily employed in a position I never would have had without my law degree. But I pay $720 to Sallie every month. And only in the last few years have I been able to pay an additional $500 or so to reduce the principal. This is after 15 years of practice when — knock wood — I’ve managed to avoid unemployment. There is no way that this large payment would have been the case but for the law degree.

  6. Tubby Bartles says:

    Impressive work. However, your “skills adjustment” is unpersuasive. The only real comparison is people who got a law degree with those who got accepted into a law degree program but chose not to go. Anything else suffers from massive selection bias.

    Studies purporting to show the value of ivy league educations and MBAs show a significantly lower effect (sometimes negligible effect) when done that way.

    I expect the same would be true of the law degree studies if done properly, to the point where you’d reach negative NPV.

  7. brad says:

    $350,000 pre-tax isn’t that great a return for three years opportunity cost and $200,000 in cost of attendance (see e.g. NYLS). Also the top line number assumes a working life starting at age 23. Many law students start out later than that in life.

    All in all it looks like for somewhere around 15-25% of students law school is a bad idea. That’s quite a large proportion. Without changing the meat of the study, the conclusion could have been framed very differently.

  8. BCLS says:

    Over 15 years ago I graduated from Boston College Law school. Every year when I pay my bar dues on line I look to how my classmates have fared. What do I find? A handful are partners in Biglaw or have moved in house. The vast majority have a business address that is either a PO Box or a residental address. The rest are either inactive, or suspended for non payment of bar dues.

  9. Ben Barros says:

    Brad, you are assuming that people at the low end of the return (a) paid full tuition and (b) are paying back all of their debt. A significant percentage of the people at the low end of the economic return are probably working in public interest jobs that are personally rewarding even if they don’t pay as much. People in those jobs often have debt relief available to them. Those jobs are also attractive to people who have little debt. To be clear, I have no idea what the percentages are, but I’m confident it is significant.

    BCLS, to be blunt, that is bullshit. I graduated from Fordham in 1996. Every person I know from my class has had professional success. I’ve also been working on an alumni study of graduates from Widener-Harrisburg, where I teach, and throughout the class years most people have good jobs. Not a lot of PO Boxes or residential addresses. If you want to be taken seriously, do an actual study of your class and post the data under your own name.

    Teo, anecdotal stories like that are not relevant when you are talking about studies that are based on large data sets. People knowing a handful of other people who are not having job success doesn’t mean anything in this context. Three of the people in my class from law school have died. Actuarial tables are harsh. That doesn’t suggest to me that I and my other classmates are about to die. Also, I don’t understand the study to be making claims about the top tier LAW SCHOOLS getting 1.1 million in benefit. At the top end, the study is talking about top earners from all law schools. To be sure, people from elite schools might be well represented in this group. But there are high earners from all types of law schools. Finally, how much do you think you would have made if you didn’t go to law school? That’s what the study is actually about.

  10. BCLS says:

    Ben Barros, to be blunt why don’t you take a look at the data for Massachusetts yourself. Page after page of po boxs, inactive or admin suspended. Just google mass bbo.

  11. BCLS says:

    Ben just for laughs I searched the Mass BBO using your last name. I found only two attorneys with the last name Barros admitted in Mass. One was admitted in 1995 and is now retired the second was admitted in 1985 and is now suspended.

  12. Ben Barros says:

    BCLS, your suggestion that a majority of Boston College law graduates from your class are not practicing or practicing out of PO Boxes or residential addresses is nonsense. Your two responses don’t actually address the point I made. Sure, you can find attorneys listed that way. It is often informative to Google them to see what they are doing – bar association listings do not tell the whole story. But my point is this – it is nonsense to suggest that a majority of lawyers who graduated from BC have not had processional success. It is refuted by common sense, my personal experience as a lawyer, and my study graduates of the school where I teach. It is also, at a more general level, refuted by the study being discussed in this post. Again, get me a good data set, and I’ll take you seriously.

  13. Ben Barros says:

    By the way, BCLS, I took 30 seconds to find the two people with my last name from Massachusetts. The one who is “retired” is practicing in New York. News flash: many people are admitted to more than one bar, and “retire” from one or more at various points so they don’t have to pay bar dues. The other, sadly, is serving a disciplinary suspension. It happens to a certain percentage of attorneys every year.

  14. brad says:

    Maybe low end outcomes of graduates of high end school are those working at high prestige, low pay, public interest law jobs, but classmates of mine from NYLS who are on the low end are either unemployed or not working in law. Those public interest jobs are highly competitive, or at least were around the turn of the century when I graduated.

    Likewise, in terms of full / versus partial tuition, the aggressive use of merit scholarship tends to be ex post regressive because the students coming in with the best predictive indicators got a discount, while those coming in with the worst pay full freight.

    To be fair to your argument though, even without the public interest provisions, the new PAYE provisions (10%/20 years) is still going to leave a large number of JDs with significant forgiven debt. I’m skeptical that Congress is going to leave it alone after the papers run stories of billions of dollars of JD debt “contributing to the deficit”. I’d guess we’d begin to see those stories when the CBO starts including in the 10 year budget window (i.e. around a decade from now).

  15. Derek Tokaz says:

    I can’t speak to the mid-career outcomes of people who graduated from BC in the 1980s and 1990s, but the outcomes for recent graduates have been pretty grim.

    For the class of 2009, 9 months after graduation, only 3.7% of grads were unemployed (the data that year did not distinguish those seeking work from those not seeking).

    Class of 2010: 4.5% unemployed and seeking work, with another 9.4% in short-term school funded jobs.

    Class of 2011: 7.4% unemployed and seeking work, with another 10.5% in short-term school funded jobs.

    Class of 2012: 11.2% unemployed and seeking work, with 4.6% in short-term school funded jobs.

    If you’ve read any of the studies about what happens to people who have been unemployed long term, you know that it’s extremely unlikely these grads will ever see a return on their law school investment.

  16. Ben Barros says:

    Derek, I don’t contest that it sucks graduating into a recession. I also don’t contest that 9 month data is very useful in tracking the year-to-year changes in the job market. But your last sentence assumes that 9 month data is the end of the story. I think I’ve established in my own study that this isn’t true. At the least, I’ve shifted the burden of proof, and would like to see actual evidence to the contrary. I agree, by the way, that on average people graduating in a recession typically do worse long term than people who graduate into a better economy. That does not establish, however, that “it is extremely unlikely these grads will ever see a return on their law school investment.”

  17. bcls says:

    Ben, In Mass attorneys have an option to go either retire or go inactive and pay a reduced fee. Large numbers just say F**K it walk away, and are suspended. Why would any rational person just throw away their legal education. All they have to do is go inactive and pay a reduced fee?

  18. teo says:

    So, I am in-house for a large company. To answer your question, Ben Barros, I’m certain I would not make what I currently make if I did not go to law school.

    But, would a career in, say, regulatory compliance without a law degree have paid me something like $1,000/month less than what I currently make? I think it would be close. And would I have spent the last 15 years at almost $1,000 per month (8.15% rate on around $120K to start) repaying SallieMae?

    For the rest of my answer, I defer to Brian. His response illustrates — perfectly — my view that students at middle- and lower-tier law schools graduate with so much debt and have such dim prospects for high-earning work that the law degree from these schools is not an efficient use of resources.

  19. bcls says:

    Ben, you are right about the retired attorney from Mass who shares your last name. Yes she is employed in New York. But did you see that since she graduated she has had six different jobs. Six jobs.

  20. Ben Barros says:

    BCLS, six jobs may or may not be a big deal – depends on the person. Teo, I actually disagree with Brian on that point, at least if it is broadly stated. Here is something I think we can all agree on – more data is better. You and I might have different instincts on the current situation. I’ve been struck by the lack of solid data out there on long-term job outcomes for lawyers, which is why I decided to do a study of the graduates from the school where I teach. I’ve reported part of the study, but I’m still working on the long-term part of it. I think that the study described in the post is a big step in the right direction, and I hope that more studies taking different approaches will start to emerge, so we can get a better picture of what is actually happening.

  21. Derek Tokaz says:

    Ben,

    I think for people working in short term jobs, part time jobs, JD Advantage, Other Professional and Nonprofessional categories, the 9 month mark certainly does not tell the whole story.

    But, for the long-term unemployed it might be far more predictive. Take a look at this study http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/15/companies-wont-even-look-at-resumes-of-the-long-term-unemployed/

    And this one: http://www.bostonfed.org/economic/ppb/2012/ppb123.pdf

  22. Ben Barros says:

    Derek, I agree with the problem re: long-term unemployed, though I’m not sure how many there are. I know there are some, but the 9 month data exaggerates the number, because a lot of people get jobs more than 9 months out. When I’m working with former students on job issues, I always focus on the need to keep things on your resume and to continue to build skills, even if the jobs are not ideal. I’m sure that in the legal context, as in any other context, employers would be hesitant to hire someone who has nothing relevant on their resume for the last two years.

  23. teo says:

    I think you need a dose of reality, Ben. At nine months, Sallie Mae is incessantly calling you. Daily for sure. I mean, at nine months out, you are defaulting on your rental obligation. You have a hard time having a conversation with anyone and not wondering what happened to your prospects. You’re $200,000 in debt at 6% and you cannot get anything other than a job that pays $40,000- if you can get that.

    I’ve seen the kids — and not just the kids. We turned down a 30 year old grad from a top law school who was working at a small firm and didn’t have the clients to make a meaningful living. Oh it’s anecdotal. I’ve sure. So were the 500 resumes that arrived 5 days after an entry-level counsel job opened up in our shop.

    It’s a terrible time to go to law school. There are too many law schools and too few firms that are hiring large classes of new lawyers.

  24. Ben Barros says:

    teo, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I spend more time in this reality than you do. I spend a _lot_ of time working with students and recent graduates on job issues. I also keep in touch with many former students, on FB and otherwise. And I’ve spent a _lot_ of time studying job placement data. The more important point is that even though it is a tough market right now, I think it will be very different in a couple of years, when fewer students are graduating into a better economy.

  25. Derek Tokaz says:

    Ben,

    I would love to see data collected on people getting jobs later than 9 months out.

    9 months after graduation a lot of employers have already started giving jobs to the next cohort of graduates. That’s not a particularly promising environment.

  26. The problem with the critics’ views expressed here is that they are largely anecdotal. Even Brian is doubling down on that approach. But to make that case you have to predict the future, a long term future, with a very small data set.

    Meanwhile Simkovic and McIntyre look back nearly two decades and they bring the analysis through 2011. I think they can readily admit that the last few years have been very bleak for many graduates and many practicing lawyers, and may be bleak going forward for faculty and staff at some schools. But that still does not weaken the overall result they reach.

    Large institutions like universities do not and will not make the kinds of dramatic changes (cuts) that the critics want so fervently on the basis of limited and anecdotal data. I wonder how the critics can claim that a two decade trend will completely and irreversibly upended at the very point when the US economy is moving back into the black?

    Thus it will be perfectly rational, and arguably well within their fiduciary obligations, for trustees to keep their law schools open even if the over enrollment that occurred in 2008-2010 is now being replaced for a few years by under enrollment. At a minimum it would be prudent even for a school facing significant challenges in enrollment to wait through the next few years before making dramatic changes.

    It should also be noted that as in real estate it’s all about location. Here in Silicon Valley tech is booming, housing prices have recovered dramatically, rents are skyrocketing and the Nasdaq is at a decade long high. A very different world than Detroit.

  27. Derek Tokaz says:

    Steve:

    How bad would job placement need to be, and for how long, for you to think that the current trend is not cyclical, that the market has gone through a structural change, and that either schools across the board need permanent class size cuts or several bottom performing schools need to close?

    If full time, long term bar passage required placement rates for the class of 2013 are still below 60%, then can we reach that conclusion? Class of 2014? 2015?

  28. bcls says:

    Steve Diamond is correct change will not come from the institutions. I think the top schools -top 14 -will remain unchanged as will the so called third tier schools. What will change is the composition of the trap schools: the Fordhams, Boston College, BU etc. The trap schools will slip into the third tier. This slippage is demanded by the Pareto principle.

  29. As loath as I am to respond to someone whose friends in the critics’ camp have gone out of their way to insult me every place they can on the web merely for suggesting (intuitively) that the results now demonstrated in the paper were possible, since you ask an important question that likely has occurred to many others, and since I spend a lot of time doing empirical work that uses similar methods (albeit in the field of market microstructure) let me suggest an answer.

    If you review the paper it is clear that the earnings premium they study IS cyclical (see slide 26 and Section IV p. 32). And the authors concluded the downturn was (notice I use past tense as they state the earnings premium has now turned positive) well within historic levels of volatility (see Fig. 5 p. 34). In fact, the earnings premium downturn was far steeper and deeper in the wake of the dotcom crash in 2000-01.

    There is nothing new in the critics case (I feel certain somehow you will let me know if I have missed something) that could not have been used in 2001 and yet you would have been wrong.

    So now I think to justify your approach you have to come up with some kind of earthquake about to hit the entire legal profession – but NOT college graduates who stop their education at the BA level – that no one else can see, or has seen. In my other role as someone who studies economic institutions like capital markets I do in fact think there are tendencies to bubbles and fragility in the financial markets so this kind of earthquake or double dip is possible but very few indicators suggest this. And the authors conclude that the argument for a structural shift as opposed to a cyclical one is not supportable in the data (p. 36).

  30. I should add one gloss to my #29 comment: if the critics are attempting to suggest that the study does not take into account the impact of the currently graduating JD population on the paper’s results, they should pause and think about the findings again. The conclusion that there is a million dollar premium at the mean for JD holders is a lifetime earnings number. Thus the recent upturn in the cycle is very unlikely to be impacted in a statistically significant manner by the relatively lower earnings that the graduates from recent classes may expect. This reinforces my point that the critics need to point to some kind of neutron bomb like event that wipes out the legal profession but leaves BA grads without a JD standing untouched.

  31. Derek Tokaz says:

    Steve,

    The paper reaches the conclusion that there is a cycle from only two instances of it happening before. That’s not a particularly strong case.

    Alabama won the BCS title game in 2013, 2012, and 2010. If they do not win in the next season, can we safely assume that they will come back and win the season after that, using the previous games to prove a “cycle”?

  32. Michael Simkovic says:

    Derek,

    The conclusions of the study don’t depend on cyclicality with respect to starting salaries. The earnings premium didn’t compress. As of 2011, law degree holders aren’t doing worse relative to similar bachelors than they have been doing on average for the last 16 years–even young law degree holders, between 25 and 30, compared to young bachelor’s degree holders. The data does not include the class of 2009 – 2012, but young law degree holders and bachelor’s should be more vulnerable than the rest to the same kinds of shocks affecting the most recent graduates.

    There’s an overall weak job market. There’s no evidence that the relative advantages provided by a law degree are less than they were in the past.

    As for cyclicality, there is a history of cyclicality going back as far as there is data. Besides the SIPP data presented in the study on earnings premiums, cyclicality shows up in the NALP data on entry level salaries back to the mid 1980s, and in studies from the 1970s by Richard Freeman and others. Look into the “cobweb cycle” literature.

    Of course, we don’t claim to be able to predict the future. No one else can either.

    Data–which is always about the past–offers a far more objective and useful guide to the future than speculation and anecdote.

  33. Derek Tokaz says:

    Ben,

    That study is very interesting. Did you collect only an additional snapshot, or for students who were contacted is there also a narrative describing their employment history? It would be useful to see what those students did to be able to compete for jobs against the new batch of graduates.

    The story for people going from JDA and Other Pro jobs to BPR positions is somewhat intuitive. But do you know what the people who were unemployed did? Simply got lucky by sending out enough resumes, or did they do something to become more qualified?

  34. Ben Barros says:

    Derek, I don’t have comprehensive data on that. From the people in the study I know personally, the most typical story was getting a job, based on the typical application and networking process, between 9 months and a year or year and two months out. This is before the next crop gets their bar results. Though I do know of some people who got jobs after the next class passed the bar. Your question is a good one, and I’ll take a look at it in my next round through the data.

  35. Derek Tokaz says:

    Michael: Are the relative advantages the same as they were in the past even when taking tuition into consideration, or has tuition taken a bite out of the earnings premium? If the average premium is $1 million, but the degree now costs another $50,000, we’d be looking at the degree losing 5% of its premium. That seems rather significant to me. For the 25th percentile earners, that tuition increase would eat a much larger portion of the premium.

    I’m also curious about what happens to people who are not just at the 25th percentile of earners, but who are also paying full freight for their degrees, people getting hit with both ends of the stick — so to speak.

    Your study puts the average net cost (sticker minus scholarship) at $90,000, and that looks reasonable even against the 25th percentile’s $350,000 premium.

    But what about someone paying $135,000 in tuition, with 6.8% interest and a 20 year repayment period? Tuition will end up costing a total of $250k. If the student also had to take out $20k each year to cover living expenses, law school will end up costing yet another $50,000 (note that I’m only counting the interest as part of the price of law school, not the cost of living itself).

    For students paying the highest prices and getting the worst jobs, that $350,000 premium isn’t compared to a $90,000 price tag, but a $300,000 one. You don’t have to be much below the 25th percentile for law school to be a losing proposition. If tuition rates continue to rise (and outpace salary increases), law school will become a losing proposition to an increasingly large number of graduates. There are already more than 30 schools charging more than $135,000.

    Lastly, do you think the analysis would be significantly changed if rather than salaries you looked at combined salaries and benefits? It seems likely that a large percentage of lawyers at the bottom of the income curve are working either as solo practitioners or partners with one or two other attorneys in a very small shop. I would suspect that the 25th percentile college grads are more likely to be working at large companies with decent benefits.