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What’s the value of a law degree? $1M in a lifetime, report says

Posted Jul 17, 2013 7:42 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Two professors are battling the conventional wisdom about the lowered value of a law degree with a research paper finding a JD more than pays for itself.

Over a lifetime, a law grad will make $1 million more, on average, than a college grad, according to the authors, Seton Hall University law professor Michael Simkovic and Rutgers University economics and business professor Frank McIntyre. The median increase in earnings is $610,000. Both the median and average figures are for pre-tax income. Inside Higher Ed summarizes their findings.

The median value of a JD is $350,000 for those in the 25th percentile and $1.1 million in the 75th percentile. “People with law degrees are still doing a lot better than people with only bachelor’s degrees,” Simkovic told Inside Higher Ed.

Simkovic and McIntyre used data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, which records whether individuals have law degrees, and the National Education Longitudinal Study. About two-fifths of those with JDs in the sample studied were not employed as lawyers.

The data in the study covers four panels of graduates from 1996 through 2008 and looks at salaries through 2011. The median and average figures do not factor in tuition costs since they vary so much, though the tuition impact is discussed elsewhere in the article. Nor does the study explicitly compare the value of a law degree from higher-ranked versus lower-ranked schools. Future earnings are estimated based on historic data.

“The data does not suggest that law graduates were unaffected by the recession,” the study says. “Rather, earnings dropped for both law graduates and college graduates after the late 2000s recession, and law graduates maintained their relative advantage. It is this relative advantage—not absolute outcomes—that measures the value of the law degree.”

“Predictions of structural change in the legal industry date back at least to the invention of the typewriter,” the study says. “But lawyers have prospered while adapting to once threatening new technologies and modes of work—computerized and modular legal research through Lexis and Westlaw; word processing; electronic citation software; electronic document storage and filing systems; automated document comparison; electronic document search; email; photocopying; desktop publishing; standardized legal forms; will-making and tax-preparing software. Through it all, the law degree has continued to offer a large earnings premium.”

Kyle McEntee, who co-founded Law School Transparency, told Inside Higher Ed that the professors have missed the point. “Law schools have made a habit out of capturing as much value out of their students as possible—and for a long time, used deceptive and immoral marketing tactics to do so,” McEntee told Inside Higher Ed in an email. “Tens of thousands of law graduates leave school each year wondering how they're going to manage to pay off their six-figure loans. That's what motivates critics and frightens prospective law students.”

Updated at 9:35 a.m. to clarify that McIntyre is not a law professor. Updated on July 21 to state that the median and average figures are for pre-tax income, and that tuition costs are discussed elsewhere in the article.

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