Why time law school? Value of law degree drops only $30K in bad vs. good economy, study says

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Thinking about timing law-school attendance to graduate at a financially advantageous time?

Don’t bother, say two researchers who previously concluded that the present value of a law degree is about $1 million more, on average, than the value of a college degree.

Graduating from law school in a bad economy has a relatively small impact on lifetime earnings relative to graduating with a bachelor’s degree, according to a preliminary draft research paper by the researchers, Rutgers University economics and business professor Frank McIntyre and Seton Hall University law professor Michael Simkovic, a visiting research scholar at Fordham University’s law school.

Though unemployment levels at graduation affect pay for the first four years, particularly in boom times, the impact fades as law graduates gain experience, according to the new paper (available here) by McIntyre and Simkovic. (The researchers’ previous paper on the value of a law degree is here.)

Overall, the value of a law degree, compared to an undergraduate degree, declines by about $30,000 for those who graduate when unemployment is high rather than low, according to McIntyre and Simkovic.

Graduating with an unusually small or large number of other law grads, however, doesn’t affect the earnings premium of a law degree over an undergraduate degree. Projected job openings by the Bureau of Labor Statistics also have no impact, the paper says.

The findings suggest that timing law school attendance isn’t an effective strategy. It’s difficult to predict unemployment at graduation when beginning law school, and any payoff for a correct prediction is small, the study says.

“The opportunity cost of a two-year delay in law school completion—that is, lower earnings early in one’s career working with a bachelor’s degree rather than a law degree—would typically outweigh gains from even a successful law school timing strategy,” McIntyre and Simkovic write.

The study primarily looked at data for those who graduated law school from the 1960s through 2008, along with earnings data from Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation from 1984 to 2013.

The study also used the American Community Survey to evaluate outcomes for those who graduated law school and college after 2008, when the recession hit. Although raw earnings for new lawyers declined after 2008, “these declines were matched by similar declines in earnings of young bachelor’s degree holders, and young lawyers maintained their relative advantage,” the study says.

That finding challenges some of the implications of the “structural change” hypothesis, Simkovic tells the ABA Journal in an email. The hypothesis holds that globalization and technology have produced a structural shift in the legal profession that will have a long-term impact on jobs and legal market growth.

Even if big changes are taking place in BigLaw, the influence on law grads’ earnings may be limited because most law grads don’t work at big firms and most people working at law firms aren’t lawyers, Simkovic says.

Because recessions and booms are infrequent events, the study was able to look at only a limited number. “While these results represent the best available evidence,” the study warns, “future expansions or recessions may well be different.” Simkovic says older census data was included so researchers could include more downturns and boom times, though the older data has some limitations.

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