There has been a flareup in the debate over the purpose and value of law school. The new discussion has been prompted by a series of posts by Michael Simkovic on Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports in which he summarizes and elaborates on his work with Frank McIntyre in two recent articles, “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” and “Timing Law School.” (You can get Mike’s complete set of posts—there are, by my count, 14—on Leiter’s blog by starting here (posted March 19) and scrolling up. Paul Caron has collected links to commentary on the commentary from both sides of the debate here, not all of which are subject to the objection I register below.)
Full disclosure at the outset: Mike Simkovic visited with us here at UNC last term, where he proved himself an excellent teacher and an engaging colleague. I consider him a friend. Of course, I don’t always agree with my friends on everything (maybe that’s why I have so few), and as you’ll see I don’t agree with Mike about everything he’s written. (Editorial Aside: I recognize that there may be no intrinsic reason why anyone should care whether I agree with Mike or not. But since you’re reading this, I’ll indulge the fantasy that you’re a little bit curious, if not about whether then at least about why.) All that said, anyone with any intellectual honesty must appreciate the importance of Mike Simkovic’s recent contributions to the ongoing public discussion on the purpose and value of legal education. His work (and let’s just agree that from here on “he” stands for both Mike and his co-author) is by my lights the first serious, empirically grounded, methodologically thoughtful showing that things—at least some things for at least some people—may not be quite as bad as some of us have feared.
Predictably, extremists on both sides of this longstanding debate have popped up to demonize or deify Prof. Simkovic and his work, vilifying or vaunting his motives and methods in sweeping and categorical terms. I have only one request of all of you—please stop. Stop the toxic name-calling. Stop erecting effigies of your adversaries’ graves so you can dance on them. The subject is much too important to be obscured in petty rivalries. You’re not enlightening anyone, and it’s way too early to claim a victory lap, let alone drag your enemy in circles at the back of your chariot for the next nine days. (I, at least, perceive Mike as having managed to hold himself mostly above the fray thus far, with only an occasional descent into the snippy or snide when goaded a bit too much. But that happens to all of us now and then—not least, I regret to say, your not altogether gentle scribe. I hope we’ll both try harder from here on out.)
In order to keep length manageable, I propose to share several posts over the next couple of weeks with some thoughts on Mike Simkovic’s important contributions. I’ll try to point out some of the questions I think his work addresses, and the questions we still need to explore. Like it or not, this kind of discussion tends to crowd out those prone to announcing that each new datum proves them right about everything all over again.
I’ll conclude this post and set the table for future ones by summarizing Mike’s principal conclusions in broad strokes. “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” uses some accepted techniques of labor econometrics and a federal government dataset to compare the earnings differential over an entire career of people who get a law degree compared with people who end their higher education with a bachelor’s degree. The paper concludes that, whether or not the JDs work as lawyers (and taking into account the costs of law school), a significant majority of them earn appreciably more over their careers than the BAs do. “Timing Law School” builds on these conclusions, and determines that it is not possible to predict a better or worse time to attend law school in order to maximize your lifetime earnings. That is in part because, the study finds, while those who graduate law school into a bad economy suffer some early hits to their earnings and their earnings advantages over BAs, and those who graduate law school into a booming economy enjoy some corresponding early advantages, these differences tend to moderate and then disappear over the longer run of a full career—again, whether or not the JD practices law. (It’s also because it proves to be just as hard to time the labor market as it is to time the stock market; that is, to the extent starting your law career in a better or worse economy affects your overall lifetime earnings, there’s no point in trying to take advantage of it, because you can’t reliably predict at the time you apply to law school what the economy is going to be like when you’re done.)
Again, I take issue with these conclusions in some respects regarding (among other things) their breadth and predictive value for reasons I hope to explain in coming posts. But now you have the big picture.