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October 21, 2011


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Brian Tamanaha

It is not obvious that what you suggest will be an improvement over relying on law schools to get the information. As you say, it will not eliminate the selection bias. The NALP figures are wildly unrepresentative. Their own study for 2010 found that 64 percent of graduates got jobs as lawyers, with a median salary of $63,000. The job market for 2011 has shown no improvement. Yet ALL of the numbers in the NALP chart you post are significantly above this median.

Many law schools would be happy to substitute their own numbers for the ones you post because they are much higher than the actual numbers--indeed lots of schools (the honest and realistic ones) already list numbers that look worse than the ones you list.

There is no easy fix. I recognize that law schools have a hard time getting graduates who are disappointed with their salaries to disclose them. But that is no excuse for law schools to report their numbers in a grossly misleading manner.

Ben Barros

I understand the basic data problems that Gary and Brian are talking about, and I'm all for better and more robust reporting. What I don't understand, in this context and in the broader discussion of whether law school is worth it, is the fixation on starting salaries. Law school is a long-term investment, and it may be more helpful to students considering law school to have some idea of how lawyers' salaries progress throughout their careers. More broadly, the financial realities of the return on law school tuition depend on a lot of different things, including career choices and local cost of living. For one of my students in Harrisburg, PA, a job that pays $60,000 per year would be a lot more comfortable than for a student living in NYC.


Brian: The Associate Salary Survey is a based on reports by law firms, rather than on reports by graduates. Also, those results are only for law firms of at least two lawyers. Law-firm results would not include salaries reported by graduates "employed" as solo practitioners, or employed outside law firms. Another reason for the importance of the database the ABA will gain from electronic reporting by graduate is that it will let the ABA aggregate reports from all the ABA law schools. It could then generate both national, regional and metropolitan starting salaries by employment type and by size of firm (for those in private practice).

Ben: You are right, income earned over a career is the real issue. From an investment perspective, the question is the net present value of going to law school. NPV would compare the cost, in current dollars, of law school against the differential in JD vs. non-JD employment. First, that data is harder to get at. Second, many law students do not know the distribution of starting salaries, and how it varies, and think that all JDs start out with high salaries. As I discussed in Reported Salaries by Law School, a recent issue of the National Jurist ranked law schools by adjusted salary medians that accounted for both cost-of-living and debt load.

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