Monday, April 27, 2015

New York Times relies on unrepresentative anecdotes and flawed study to provide slanted coverage of legal education (Michael Simkovic)

Just when you thought The New York Times was rounding the corner and starting to report responsibly about legal education based on hard data and serious labor economics studies, their reporting reverts to the unfortunate form it has taken for much of the last 5 years*—relying on unrepresentative anecdotes and citing fundamentally flawed working papers to paint legal education in a negative light.

Responsible press coverage would have put law graduate outcomes in context by noting that:

(1) law graduates continue to do better in terms of employment (both overall and full time) and earnings than similar bachelor’s degree holders, even in an economy that has generally been challenging for young workers

(2) law students, even from some of the lowest ranked and most widely criticized law schools, continue to have much lower student loan default rates than the national average across institutions according to standardized measurements reported by the Department of Education

(3) law graduate earnings and employment rates typically increase as they gain experience

(4) Data from After the JD shows that law graduates continue to pay down their student loans and approximately half of graduates from the class of 2001 paid them off completely within 12 years of graduation

Instead, The New York Times compares law graduate outcomes today to law graduate outcomes when the economy was booming.  But not all law graduates.  The Times focuses on law graduates who have been unusually unsuccessful in the job market or have unusually large amounts of debtFor example, The New York Times focused on a Columbia law school graduate working as an LSAT tutor** as if that were a typical outcome for graduates of elite law schools.  But according to the National Law Journal, two-thirds of recent Columbia graduates were employed at NLJ 250 law firms (very high paying, very attractive jobs),*** and the overwhelming majority of recent Columbia graduates appear to work in attractive positions.   (Columbia outcomes are much better than most, but the negative outcomes discussed in The New York Times are substantially below average for law graduates as a whole).

In Timing Law School, Frank McIntyre’s and I analyze long term outcomes for those who graduated into previous recessions, using nationally representative data and well-established econometric methods.  Our results suggest that law graduates continue to derive substantial benefits from their law degrees even when graduating into a recession.  The recent recession does not appear to be an exception. (See also here and here).  This analysis is not mentioned in the recent The New York Times article, even though it was cited in The New York Times less than a month ago (and alluded to in The Washington Post even more recently).

The implication of The New York Times’ story “Burdened With Debt, Law School Graduates Struggle in Job Market” is that there is some law specific problem, when the reality is that the recession continues to negatively affect all young and inexperienced workers and law graduates continue to do better than most.   Law school improves young workers’ chances of finding attractive employment opportunities and reduces the risk of defaulting on debt.  The benefits of law school exceed the costs for the overwhelming majority of law school graduates.

The New York Times relies heavily on a deeply flawed working paper by Professor Deborah Merritt of Ohio State.  Problems with this study were already explained by Professor Brian Galle:

“My problem is that instead DJM wants to offer us a dynamic analysis, comparing 2014 to 2011, and arguing that the resulting differential tells us that there has been a "structural shift" in the market for lawyers.  It might be that the data exist somewhere to conduct that kind of analysis, but if so they aren't in the paper.  Nearly all the analysis in the paper is built on the tend line between DJM's 2014 Ohio results and national-average survey results from NALP.  

Let me say that again.  Almost everything DJM says is built on a mathematical comparison between two different pools whose data were constructed using different methods.  I would not blame you if now stopped reading."

In other words, it is difficult to tell whether any differences identified by Professor Merritt are:

(1) Due to differences between Ohio and the U.S. as a whole

(2) Due to differences in methodology between Merritt, NALP, and After the JD

(3) Actually due to differences between 2011 and 2014 for the same group

After Professor Galle’s devastating critique, journalists should have been extremely skeptical of Merritt’s methodology and her conclusions.  Professor Merritt’s response to Galle’s critique, in the comments below his post, is not reassuring:

“Bottom line for me is that the comparison in law firm employment (62.1% for the Class of 2000 three years after graduation, 40.5% for the lawyers in my population) seems too stark to stem solely from different populations or different methods—particularly because other data show a more modest decline in law firm employment over time. But this is definitely an area in which we need much, much more research.”

Judging from this response and the quotes in The New York Times, Merritt appears to be doubling down on her inapposite comparisons rather than checking how much of her conclusions are due to potentially fatal methodological problems.  What Professor Merritt should have done is replicate her 2014 Ohio-only methodology in 2000/2001 or 2010/2011, compared the results for Ohio only at different points in time, and limited her claims to an analysis of the Ohio legal employment market.

There are additional problems with Professor Merritt’s study (or at least the March 11 version that I reviewed).**** 

  • Ohio is not a representative legal employment market, but rather a relatively low paying one where lawyers comprise a relatively small proportion of the workforce.  
  • A disproportionate share of the 8 or 9 law schools in Ohio (9 if you include Northern Kentucky) are low ranked or unranked, and this presumably is reflected in their employment outcomes. 
  • Merritt’s sample is subject to selection bias because of movement of the most capable law graduates out of Ohio and into higher paying legal markets.  Ohio law graduates who do not take the Ohio bar after obtaining jobs in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., or other leading markets will not show up in Merritt’s sample.  
  • Whereas Merritt concludes that law graduate outcomes have not improved, the data may simply reflect the fact that Ohio is a less robust employment market than the U.S. as a whole. 
  • Merritt’s analysis of employment categories does not take into account increases in earnings within employment categories.  After the JD and follow-ups suggests that these within-category gains are substantial, as does overall increases in earnings from Census data. 
  • Merritt makes a biased assumption that anyone she could not reach is unemployed instead of gathering additional information about non-respondents and weighting the results to take into account response bias. Law schools may have been more aggressive in tracking down non-respondents than Professor Merritt was. 

For the benefit of those who are curious, I am making my full 8 page critique of Professor Merritt's working paper available here, but please keep in mind that it was written in mid March and Professor Merritt may have addressed some of these issues in more recent versions of her paper.  If that is the case, I trust that she’ll highlight any changes or improvements in a blog post response.


*    A few weeks ago I asked a research assistant (a third year law student) to search for stories in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal about law school.  Depending on whether the story would have made my research assistant more likely or less likely to want to go to law school when he was considering it or would have had no effect, he coded the stories as positive, negative, or neutral.  According to my research assistant, The New York Times reported 7 negative stories to 1 positive story in 2011 and 5 negative stories to 1 positive story in 2012.  In 2013, 2014, and 2015, The New York Times coverage was relatively balanced.  In aggregate over the five-year period The New York Times reported about 2 negative stories for every 1 positive story.  The Wall Street Journal’s coverage was even more slanted—about 3.75 negative stories for every positive story—and remained heavily biased toward negative stories throughout the five-year period.

**   Professor Stephen Diamond notes the LSAT tutor’s relatively high hourly wage, more lucrative opportunities the tutor claims he turned down, and how the tutor describes his own work ethic.

***  For the class of 2010, the figure at Columbia was roughly 52 percent 9 months after graduation, but activity in the lateral recruitment market suggests things may be looking up.

**** The comments that follow summarize a lengthy (8 page) critique I sent to Professor Merritt privately in mid March after reviewing the March 11 draft of her paper.  I have not had a chance to review Professor Merritt’s latest draft, and Professor Merritt may have responded to some of these issues in a revision.  


UPDATE:  Additional responses from Professors Galle and Merritt.

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