Law Professor & Labor Economist Write 'The Economic Value of a Law Degree'

A recently released paper titled “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” found that a law degree on average had $1 million in value.

This may surprise some of you who have kept up to date on the barrage against law schools within the last few years.

The paper looks at what a law school graduate can expect to earn from a law degree. The authors, Michael Simkovic, a law professor, and Frank McIntyre, a labor economist, find that the mean annual earnings premium of a law degree is approximately $53,300 a year, and that the average pretax value of a law degree over a lifetime was $1 million. In other words, the average law school graduate can expect to earn about one million dollars more than if they had not gone to law school.

Some commenters noted that this might be more of an outlier because a few attorneys make a lot of money, where most of us, in relation, do not. But the authors also found that median additional lifetime earnings for those with a law degree were $610,000. That means half of law school graduates made more and half less than this amount over their lifetime. So even at the 25th percentile, lifetime additional earnings were $350,000.

The bright side of all of this money talk is that earnings for 75 percent of law school graduates easily exceeded the amount of tuition paid, even with tuition at about $50,000 a year. The authors also found that the median law degree holder earned 60 percent more than the median college graduate. So you can still go to law school, make a decent living, and pay back all of that tuition -- great news! With empirical evidence.

Another interesting point from the paper is the cyclical nature of the legal market. This study steps outside the current climate to look at data over a period of decades. Since only 2 percent of a law school graduate’s lifetime earnings come in the first year after graduation, the longer term is arguably a better measure; looking at current employment rates is only one part of that picture. This also goes to the notion that lawyers are generally happier the longer that they practice.

The real question is whether the current low of the legal market will persist. Some argue that technology has changed the legal market for good.

As for the argument that technology has changed everything in the legal market, here's a quote in a study from the Harvard Law Review in 1901, decrying modern technology by stating, “[t]he stenographer and the typewriter have monopolized what was his work … and he sits outside of the business tide.”

This quote from over 100 years ago shows that claiming change is afoot – bringing obsolescence and wholesale disruption in the law market – is a century-old phenomenon. The question is whether this time is different. And we see the same thing in librarianship. There are articles over 100 years old announcing the end of libraries and the print book. Librarians are asking ourselves the same question, will this time be different?

However, both professions will thrive if the members of the profession can continue to adapt to change -- and stop going at a snail's pace.

NYTimes -- Debating, Yet Again, the Worth of Law School

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