Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Do Law Schools Undervalue Their Graduates?

Yes, because of their steadfast commitment to the metric "average starting salary" (I will avoid the more fun acronym and go with AS). In theory, AS is an objective metric that counters the most objective metric of obtaining a J.D.--cost. In practice, AS has proven itself an unreliable metric. The anonymous blogger Loyola 2L gained notoriety by accusing Loyola of promoting an inaccurate AS that overvalued a Loyola J.D. A great discussion at Paul's TaxProf Blog analyzes the misleading effects of a recent National Jurist survey of AS reports. These discussions are helpful, but they tend to assume that law schools over-inflate AS to attract more students and/or charge higher tuition.

I want to take a different approach here because the problem has more to do with how the market interprets AS. Students and graduates interpret AS as a measure of success; it is the standard result that the average student should achieve upon graduating. Anyone below AS is a failure; anyone at or above AS is a success. Law schools contribute to this interpretation by reporting AS as the objective proxy of J.D. value. If the law school reports an artificially inflated AS as the standard result, a growing number of its successful graduates will be interpreted as failures.

AS suffers from fatal procedural and substantive flaws that produce artificial inflation. Procedurally, AS limits the sample size to an unrepresentative sample. Lawyers earning below AS ("failures") are much less likely to respond to the school's AS survey than lawyers earning above AS ("successes"). This causes a steady artificial increase in the school's AS each year as more of the "failures" are not included, which is only compounded by the current salary wars for top graduates. The more AS increases in this manner, the more it becomes unrepresentative of the school's true J.D. value.

Substantively, AS ignores crucial measures of success in the legal market. The value of the J.D. is a rewarding career, which can span 50+ years, that a lawyer could not otherwise have without the J.D. Measuring its value must analyze present and future earnings, quality of life, job satisfaction, and then finally the cost of acquiring the degree. AS only represents the beginning point of a lawyer's career. It has no measure of how the lawyer's career progresses, such as the 62% of Big Law associates who leave by the fourth year or a lower-salaried lawyer in Year 1 who has built a thriving practice by Year 10. The immortal Howie was probably a failure by AS standards but a major success by any other measure. AS has no measure of job satisfaction or quality of life, which become more important as the lawyer ages. Of lawyers I know, some of the most miserable are in Big Law while some of the happiest work for state agencies. Some of my colleagues have decided to move on to other professions. AS cannot account for, much less measure, these natural progressions of a lawyer's career.

By relying on AS as a measure of J.D. value, law schools cause a large number of their graduates who are market successes to be identified as market failures. It is hard but not impossible for law schools to find a better metric than AS. The ABA is conducting a study called After the JD, which tracks the careers of 4,000 lawyers during their first 10 years of practice. The study tracks salary, quality of life, and job satisfaction. It has already produced some interesting results so far, like finding that minority lawyers report higher job satisfaction, and 67% of African American lawyers in Big Law plan to leave within two years.

Using this study as a guideline, law schools can formulate similar metrics to more accurately assess the value of their J.D. programs. For instance, the Internet Legal Research Group recently published a Cost-Benefit Analysis of American Law Schools. When considering cost of tuition and cost of living along with AS, they found the University of Georgia provides the most value to its students. With similar research, law schools can identify areas where they outperform the competition in generating value for their graduates. More importantly, they can identify better methods to more accurately value their graduates.


Anonymous shg said...

Not to stray too far off point, but Howie made a killing representing murderous drug dealers (ah, the good old days).

His quality of life, on the other hand, was largely contingent on the quality of the vodka on the luncheon special. To the extent one could tell, he generally seemed pretty happy, if not terribly coherent by evening.

2/05/2008 2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you wrote. However, I think you understate the significance of the fase numbers.

The National Jurist numbers for example. As the comment @ 7:55 on taxprof blog below shows, Loyola's claimed average starting salary of $87,000 is a lie. Not only does it exclude everyone who didn't report a starting salary, a procedural flaw highlighted by your article, but it inexplicably excludes everyone who didn't go into the private sector.

We were all taught averages in elementary school. There is no justifiable excuse for these errors, and so It's hard not to impute knavish intent to the administrators who calculate these numbers.

2/06/2008 10:15 AM  

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