July 28, 2016
Some questions for Professor Benjamin H. Barton about his use of IRS data to estimate solo practitioner incomes (Michael Simkovic)
After Tuesday's post explaining why IRS schedule C data dramatically underestimates incomes for solo practitioners and other sole proprietors, Professor Benjamin H. Barton emailed to indicate that his views remained unchanged and he did not intend to respond beyond his previous comments on Professor Stephen Diamond's blog. Barton's comments did not address many of the issues I raised.
On Wednesday, I asked Professor Barton to consider the following questions:
1) Do you think that 20 million or so U.S. small business owners are living below the poverty threshold for a 2 person household?
2) Do you think the IRS is wrong about its own data and schedule C does not in fact understate net income? Why do you think that you understand IRS data, IRS enforcement capabilities, and the level of tax evasion better than the IRS?
3) Do you think that everyone who files schedule C has no other sources of income?
4) Do you think that Treasury and JCT estimates of tax expenditures are way off and exclusions and deductions from tax concepts of income are negligible?
5) If apples to apples comparisons using schedule C data show that legal services sole proprietorships are more profitable than 97 percent of sole proprietorships, is that something you should mention? Would you at least agree that using schedule C data for legal services and census data for everyone else is a methodological error?
Professor Barton has not yet responded.
July 26, 2016
In 2015, Professor Benjamin Barton of the University of Tennessee estimated for CNN.com, and Business Insider that attorneys working in solo practice earn an average of slightly less than $50,000 per year. Barton made similar estimates in his book, “Glass Half Full.” Professor Stephen Diamond of Santa Clara argues that solo incomes are quite a bit higher. (Barton responded in the comments section).
There is little doubt that solo practitioners typically earn substantially less than lawyers working in large Wall Street Law firms. However, a closer reading of the Internal Revenue Service data on which Barton relies and Census data both suggest that solo practitioner average (mean) annual earnings are likely closer to $100,000.
I. Average (Mean) Incomes of Lawyers: Census Income Data vs. IRS Schedule C Net Income Data
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, average (mean) total personal income for lawyers who are “self employed, not incorporated” (a proxy for those in small legal practice) was around $140,000 in 2012 and 2013. For those who were self-employed, incorporated (a proxy for those who are owners of larger legal practices) average total personal income was around $180,000 to $190,000. These average figures include those working part time. Restricting the sample to those working full-time increases average earnings for “self employed, not incorporated” lawyers to around $160,000 to $165,000 and for the “self-employed, incorporated” lawyers to $185,000 to $200,000.
Barton based his earnings estimates on average “net income” data from the Internal Revenue Services Statistics of Income for Non-farm Sole Proprietorships for “Legal Services (NAICS Code 5411)”. This data is based on Schedule C of form 1040, which is used to calculate one of several sources of income on an individual tax return (“Business Income or Loss”).
Looking at the same IRS schedule-C net-income data for all non-farm sole proprietorships and applying Barton’s reasoning suggests that in 2013, 24 million American small business owners earned an average (mean) income of $12,500. This is barely above the poverty threshold for a 1 person household, and considerably lower than average (mean) earned income figures for all Americans reported by the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey (around $47,000 including only those who are employed in some capacity, and $22,000 averaging in everyone—children, the retired, and those not in the work force).
A. IRS Schedule C Data Is Biased Downward:
What explains the large discrepancy between low IRS sole proprietor net income data and higher Census earnings data—for lawyers and for everyone else? There are several problems with IRS sole proprietor data that are likely to lead to dramatic underestimation of individual earnings.
July 20, 2016
Prof. Jeff Sovern (St. John's) writes:
I have been wondering about the extent of law professors’ ethical obligations to disclose when their research has been supported by a grant from a group with a stake in the findings, and because you are the de facto moderator of the law professor village square, I wondered if you would consider posting the item below to your blog and seeking comment. I apologize for its length.
A grant that results in the publication of a law review article or similar publication should be acknowledged in the article, but what about later work in the same general area that espouses a policy position consistent with what the grantor would have wanted? That issue is germane to a 2013 article in The Nation, The Scholars Who Shill for Wall Street which criticized academics (notably, George Mason’s Todd Zywicki) for failing to disclose in papers, congressional testimony, speeches, op-eds, etc. compensated work for the financial industry. The AALS has been rather vague on this subject, but here’s what it said in its Statement of Good Practices by Law Professors in the Discharge of Their Ethical and Professional Responsibilities: “Sponsored or remunerated research should always be acknowledged with full disclosure of the interests of the parties. If views expressed in an article were also espoused in the course of representation of a client or in consulting, this should be acknowledged.” It’s not at all clear to me that the conduct described in The Nation article violated that policy.
My own concern is more personal. My law school (St. John’s) accepted a grant from an organization with ties to a particular industry. My co-authors and I conducted a survey financed by this grant (we had to purchase a software license, compensate those who completed the survey, and so on) and published a law review article about our findings. We had complete control over the survey and what we wrote about our findings and the grantor did not comment on them; in all respects, its behavior was exemplary. We acknowledged the funder in the article. Later, I wrote some op-eds about our work, and acknowledged the grantor again. Still later, I wrote op-eds about the broader subject, giving no more than a sentence to our research, or not mentioning it at all. Do I have an obligation in the later op-eds to mention the grantor? Would readers want to know that my law school accepted money from the grantor which supported my research? If your answer is no, do you see anything wrong with the conduct described in The Nation article? If you answer is yes, would it be different if the funder were not associated with a particular industry or point of view?
Perhaps the AALS would consider updating and elaborating on its statement. It might be a good project for professors specializing in professional responsibility. When the AALS re-evaluates a school for membership every seven years, does it inquire into compliance with this aspect of its Statement of Good Practices? Should it?
Good questions, I've opened it for comments. (Submit your comment only once, comments are moderated, and may take awhile to appear.)
June 24, 2016
Last week I wrote an open letter to New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber discussing problems with his law school coverage and his reliance on low quality sources such as internet blogs and "experts" who lack relevant expertise rather than peer reviewed labor economics research. By email, Scheiber insisted that there was nothing wrong with his coverage, but he'd be happy to hear of any specific factual problems I could identify.
I identified 6 clear factual errors and multiple misleading statements. I also reinterviewed his lead source, John Acosta and found important discrepancies between how Scheiber depicted Acosta as someone who was suckered into un-repayable debt, while Acosta describes his own situation as hopeful and law school as a worthwhile and carefully researched investment. New York Times Dealbook reporter and U.C. Berkeley Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon weighed in, citing my research and supporting my points.
Scheiber posted a response to his facebook page, after running it by his editors at the New York Times. The New York Times agreed to correct the most minor of the six errors I identified. They also "tweaked" two sentences so that the language was less definitive.
Scheiber's response includes some good points (many students from Valparaiso might be below the 25th percentile of law school graduates) as well as strained interpretations of the language of his original article: "fewer" did not actually mean "fewer"'; "Harvardesque" did not actually mean "similar to Harvard." Scheiber describes my presentation of data that contradicts his factual claims as "strange", "bizarre", "odd", "overly-literal" and (on Twitter) "gripes." Interestingly, Scheiber thinks that "most law school graduates who pass the bar are going to have at least a few hundred thousand dollars in assets like 401k and home equity by the time they work for 20 years." This level of savings would make them far more financially secure than the vast majority of the U.S. population.
My response to Scheiber is below. I explain why The New York Times has an obligation to its readers to correct the remaining uncorrected factual errors in Scheiber's story.
Scheiber embedded his response in my explanation of the 6 clear factual errors in his story, and I in turn embedded my response within his response. To ease readability, I have color coded Scheiber's response in orange, and my new response in blue. Scheiber's response is indented once, and my new response is indented twice. The least indented black text at the beginning of each thread is from the list of 6 clear factual errors, and can be skipped (scroll down until you see orange or blue text) by those who have followed the discussion thus far.
UPDATE: June 25, 2016: Yesterday, The New York Times posted an additional minor correction to its discussion of taxation of debt forgiveness, stating that debt forgiveness would "probably" be treated as taxable income. This is an improvement over the original, but could still mislead or confuse readers. It also leaves many of the most important errors uncorrected.
Scheiber tells me that the "tweaks" to the language which he communicated to me in his facebook post from Tuesday 6/21 actually happened on Friday evening 6/17. This would make them coincide with the timing of my open letter, but before my more detailed explanation of 6 clear factual errors. Scheiber tells me that these "tweaks" were not made in response to my letter, although he has not specified when on Friday evening the changes were made. They appear to have been made after I sent him the letter.
June 21, 2016
June 20, 2016
June 18, 2016
New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber was kind enough to respond to my open letter and ask if I could point to anything specifically factually wrong with his story. My response is below.
Thanks so much for responding. Yes, there are at least 6 factual errors in the article, and several misleading statements.
I’ll start with my interview with Acosta from earlier today, and then we can discuss empirics. Here’s what Acosta said:
"There’s no way I could pay back my student loans under a 10-year standard payment plan. With my current income, I can support myself and my family, but I need to keep my loan payments low for now. I’ve been practicing law since May, and I’m on track to make $40,000 this year. I think my income will go up over time, but I don’t know if it will be enough for me to pay back my loans without debt forgiveness after 20 years. What happens is up in the air. I’m optimistic that I can make this work and pay my student loans. I view the glass now as half full.
Valparaiso did not mislead me about employment prospects. I had done my research. I knew the job market was competitive going in. I knew what debt I was walking into. I think very few Americans don’t have debt, but for me it was an investment. I saw the debt as an investment in my career, my future, and my family.
Valparaiso gave a guy like me, a non-traditional student a shot at becoming a lawyer. Most law schools say they take a holistic approach, but they don’t really do it. I had to work hard to overcome adversity, and they gave me a shot to go to law school and to succeed. They gave me a shot at something that I wanted to do where most law schools wouldn’t.
My situation might be different from other law students who start law school right out of college. I was older and I have a family to support."
On to empirics.
The story states that:
“While demand for other white-collar jobs has rebounded since the recession, law firms and corporations are finding that they can make do with far fewer full-time lawyers than before.”
This is incorrect.
First, the number of jobs for lawyers has increased beyond pre-recession levels (2007 or earlier), both in absolute terms and relative to growth in overall employment. (error #1)
Focusing only on lawyers working full-time in law firms or for businesses (I’m not sure why you exclude those working in government), there are more full-time corporate and law firm lawyers in 2014 according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS)—870,000—than in 2007—786,000. There have been more full-time corporate and law firm lawyers in every year from 2009 on than there were in 2007 and earlier.
You were looking at NALP or ABA data, which is measured at a single point in time—9 or 10 months after graduation—and is therefore much less representative of outcomes for law graduates—even recent law graduates—than Census data. Indeed, many law graduates who will eventually gain admission to a state bar will not have done so as of the date when NALP collects data. NALP and the ABA also use different definitions from the Census, so you cannot readily use their data to compare law graduates to others.
The trend of growth in lawyer jobs holds true for other cuts of the data (all lawyers; all full time lawyers) using other data sources—U.S. Census or Department of Labor (BLS OES) data.[i]
This is in spite of large declines in law school enrollments, which would be expected to reduce the number of working lawyers.
Second, employment has not rebounded to pre-recession (2007 or earlier) levels outside of law. (error #2)
June 17, 2016
An Open Letter to New York Times Journalist Noam Scheiber: Journalists Should Consult Peer-Reviewed Research, Not Bloggers (Michael Simkovic)
Dear Mr. Scheiber:
Have you seen this line of peer-reviewed research, which estimates the boost to earning from a law degree including the substantial proportion of law graduates who do not practice law?
- Michael Simkovic & Frank McIntyre, The Economic Value of a Law Degree, 43 J. Legal Stud. 249 (2014)
- Michael Simkovic & Frank McIntyre, The Economic Value of a Law Degree (2013)
- The Economic Value of a Law Degree PowerPoint Presentation
High quality nationally representative data from the U.S. Census Bureau, analyzed using standard and widely accepted econometric techniques, shows that even toward the bottom of the distribution, the value of a law degree (relative to a terminal bachelor’s degree) is much greater than the costs.
All of the data suggests that this has not changed since the financial crisis. The economy is worse and young people are facing more challenges in the job market, but law graduates continue to have the same relative advantage over bachelor’s degree holders as they have had in the past:
These findings have been covered in the New York Times before:
- Michael Simkovic, Overall Stagnation in Legal Jobs Hides Underlying Shifts, The New York Times Dealbook, April 1, 2016
- Steven Davidoff Solomon, Law Schools and Industry Show Signs of Life, Despite Forecasts of Doom, The New York Times Dealbook, March 31, 2015
- Steven Davidoff Solomon, Debating, Yet Again, the Worth of Law School, The New York Times Dealbook, June 18, 2013
Data from the U.S. Census and the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of lawyers has grown since the financial crisis, both in absolute terms and relative to overall employment.
Data from the Department of Education shows that law school graduates, even from very low-ranked law schools, have exceptionally low student loan default rates.
I have a number of concerns about factual inaccuracies in your recent story, “An Expensive Law Degree, and No Place to Use It” and your reliance on “experts” such as Paul Campos who lack any technical expertise or even basic financial or statistical literacy.
Your readers would receive more reliable information if you concentrated less on sources like Paul Campos and internet “scamblogs” and focused instead on peer-reviewed research by professional economists using high quality data and well-established methods of statistical analysis.
June 18, 2016: Noam Scheiber replies and I respond by re-interviewing Acosta and pointing out specific factual errors in Scheiber's story.
June 20, 2016: I explain different data sources that are useful for counting lawyers.
June 21, 2016: Steven Davidoff Solomon weighs in at N.Y. Times Dealbook, citing my research and supporting my points.
June 21, 2016, 10:05pm EST: Noam Scheiber sent a lengthy response by email and posted his response to his facebook page. Scheiber informs me that his response was reviewed by his editors at the New York Times.
June 24: I responded to Scheiber and explain Why The New York Times Should Correct The Remaining Factual Errors in Its Law School Coverage. In response, the New York Times posted a correction to the most minor of the 5 remaining errors.
June 09, 2016
Journalism researcher: To correct misinformation, essential to monitor and respond immediately (Michael Simkovic)
Scholars Strategy Network's No Jargon: 13: The Misinformation Age
Professor Brian Southwell explains why people tend to believe false information and discusses strategies for correcting the public perception of misinformation. Southwell is a professor of Mass Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
June 07, 2016
This is the first hike in first-year associate salaries in nearly a decade. All the major New York firms will have to follow suit, and one can expect that the leading firms in all other markets will also raise their salaries as well.
ADDENDUM: The amusing typo in the original headline ("startling" to "starting") has been fixed!