How much is a law degree worth?

By Felix Salmon
January 10, 2011
David Segal is the best writer on the NYT's business desk, so it's a good thing that he was chosen to pen today's 5,000-word disquisition on the economics of law degrees.

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David Segal is the best writer on the NYT’s business desk, so it’s a good thing that he was chosen to pen today’s 5,000-word disquisition on the economics of law degrees. He’s taken a particularly dry subject and turned it into a compelling and accessible read; that’s no mean feat.

At the heart of the article is law schools’ bait-and-switch operation: universities rake in millions of dollars in tuition fees from students who are given to understand that a well-paid job lies waiting for them upon graduation. But such jobs are hard to find and precious few law graduates will ever waltz straight into a $160,000-a-year Biglaw job, especially if they graduate from a non-top-tier school.

The connection between well-paid jobs and top-tier universities is well known and as a result, there’s something of a statistical arms race going on between universities, all of which want to improve their rankings. Segal doesn’t quite accuse the colleges of outright lies, but he comes very close: at one point, for instance, he talks about the “several different explanations” which Georgetown Law provided to explain a suspicious-looking offer of temporary work to unemployed graduates, one of which claimed that the university — which was also the graduates’ employer — didn’t know where those alums were.

But I’m a wonk and I’d like to have seen a few more numbers in this piece. For instance, when Segal says that only “a small fraction of graduates are winning the Big Law sweepstakes”, I’d like to know what that fraction is: roughly what proportion of the nation’s law graduates, each year, is going to get one of those $160,000-a-year jobs?

And then there’s this:

In the Wonderland of these statistics, a remarkable number of law school grads are not just busy — they are raking it in. Many schools, even those that have failed to break into the U.S. News top 40, state that the median starting salary of graduates in the private sector is $160,000. That seems highly unlikely, given that Harvard and Yale, at the top of the pile, list the exact same figure.

Even at Harvard and Yale I’m suspicious of that $160,000 figure; for the non-top-tier colleges, it’s clearly fictional. No matter how many of your graduates go on to $160,000-a-year jobs, there’s always going to be a significant number who earn a lot less than that and there are going to be almost none who earn more. As a result, the mode might be $160,000, but the median will never be that high. (And in reality the distribution of law-grad salaries is highly bimodal, with the first mode at a much lower level.)

Dean Baker has a more serious criticism of Segal’s piece, noting that “most of the new jobs that are being created are at the top and the bottom of the skills level”. If that’s the case, he says, “then the NYT has seriously misrepresented the state of the legal market”.

I wouldn’t go that far. For one thing, I’m not sure that someone clutching a law degree from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego really counts as being at the top of the skills level; Segal’s whole point is that lower-tier law schools are churning out graduates who would have been better off not getting a graduate degree at all, partly because they could put their skills to better use in the world of employment rather than racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.

But Baker’s point is well taken: “the economy,” he says, “could simply be suffering from a situation in which there are too few jobs in total”. Given the NYT acreage afforded him, Segal could and should have spent a little time looking at how the number of law-school graduates has changed over time and how their employment prospects have changed as well. If the number of graduates is holding roughly constant even as the number of jobs has plunged, then that looks like a problem with the broad economy more than a problem of law school mendacity.

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