August 15, 2016
“Glass Half Full” author concedes problems with estimates of solo practitioner incomes and headcounts (updated 8/18)
Professor Benjamin H. Barton recently responded to critiques of his estimates of solo practitioner incomes. Barton does not answer the specific questions that I posed about his use of IRS data, but he generally concedes that the IRS data is problematic.
- Barton wrote:
“Is it possible that the IRS data undersells the earnings of solo practitioners? Yes, for the reasons I state above and for some of the reasons that you and Professor Diamond point out.”
- Barton wrote:
“Do I think that the IRS data are off by a factor of 3.5 or even 2? No.”
I encourage Professor Barton to present a revised estimate that he thinks is more accurate. Several studies that he cites for support suggest that his solo income estimates are off by a factor of approximately 2 to 3 (see below for details).
- Barton defends his use of IRS data on three grounds, each of which is problematic:
a. “The IRS data on lawyer earnings is the longest running data I could find and thus the best dataset for a discussion of long term trends.”
Professor Barton overlooked the U.S. Census Bureau’s Decennial Census, which has data on Lawyer’s incomes since 1950 (which reports 1949 incomes).[i] The IRS data presented by Barton starts 18 years later, in 1967.
When considering long term trends in occupational incomes, it’s important to consider changes in the race and sex of members of the occupation. Across occupations, women and minorities generally earn less than white men. Race and sex variables are available in Census Household data, but not public-use IRS data.
b. The IRS data “separates lawyer earnings into solo practitioners and law firm partners”
Professor Barton acknowledges that his data misses incorporated self-employed lawyers, and that this group likely has higher incomes than those that he captures.[ii]
This means that Professor Barton’s IRS data is much less useful for identifying small and solo practitioners in 2013 than it was in 1970. This is because the proportion of solo and small attorneys who incorporated has likely increased dramatically. In 1970, 5 percent of full-time self-employed lawyers were incorporated. By 2014, the share increased to more than 50 percent.[iii]. Barton is missing many solo and small time practitioners. If trends toward incorporation continue, his data will become less useful every passing year. The IRS data has different biases at different points in time, making trends potentially unreliable.
August 11, 2016
Benjamin H. Barton Responds to Critics of Solo Practitioner Income Estimates: "IRS and Census Data Not that Far Apart Upon Closer Inspection"
The following is a response from Professor Benjamin H. Barton to critiques and questions about his use of IRS data to estimate solo practitioner incomes. It has not been edited or altered from the form in which Professor Barton submitted it.
IRS and Census Data Not that Far Apart Upon Closer Inspection
On July 25th Professor Stephen Diamond criticized my use of IRS income statistics to discuss the earnings of solo practitioners on his blog. I responded to Professor Diamond in the comments. On July 26, 2016 Professor Michael Simkovic published a number of critiques here. Two days later Professor Simkovic followed up with a second post asking me a series of questions and challenging me to respond to both of his posts. Here I accept Professor Simkovic’s invitation.
Below I explain more about the IRS data and how I use it, but I will not bury the lede. The data that Professors Simkovic and Diamond use to criticize my work, ACS data for lawyers who are in the category of “self-employed, not incorporated,” is not appropriate data for defining the earnings of solo practitioners. That Census category likely includes two very different types of self-employed lawyers – solo practitioners (the lowest paid lawyers in private practice) and law firm partners (the highest paid lawyers in private practice). The Census Department does not make it easy to figure out exactly which lawyers are counted in the category of “self-employed, not incorporated,” but combining this definition with this one and looking at the ACS form itself it seems pretty clear that partners in law firms are included in this category.[i]
Because the ACS data includes an indeterminate number of partners and solos, the average earnings in that category ($165-200,000) are a misleading proxy for the earnings of American solo practitioners. If there was a data category of “professional baseball players” that included minor league (low paid) and major league (highly paid) baseball players, and there was no way to tell how many of each were in the sample, you could not use the average earnings of “all professional baseball players” as a proxy for minor league salaries, since some members of the sample earn much, much more than other members of the sample.
The ACS data is inappropriate, but is the IRS data better? I use the IRS data in my book, Glass Half Full – The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession (Oxford 2015) and in later work to talk about several trends in the market for legal services. Here is an updated version of a chart I first created for the book:
Some news sources claim that I think solo practitioners are "tax cheats." The estimate that small business owners underreport their revenue and over-claim on expenses comes from the Internal Revenue Service and the Government Accountability Office, not my imagination. It’s inappropriate to say that I’m claiming that solo attorneys are tax cheats. I'm simply explaining the IRS's position on biases in IRS data--something that anyone who uses this data should be sure to note.
At least one source has claimed that ACS income data include business revenue rather than business net income or profits, citing Professor Barton as its source. This claim is incorrect.
The Census defines Self-employment income as follows:
"self-employment income includes net money income (gross receipts minus expenses) from one’s own business, professional enterprise, or partnership. Gross receipts include the value of all goods sold and services rendered. Expenses include costs of goods purchased, rent, heat, light, power, depreciation charges, wages and salaries paid, business taxes (not personal income taxes), etc.” See pg. 80
Perhaps the journalist misunderstood Professor Barton. I've requested corrections.
August 10, 2016
An ominous development for the new law school at UNT. Initially, a public law school in Dallas seemed like a good idea--a "first," until Texas A&M acquired Texas Wesleyan, also in Dallas/Ft. Worth. A&M has made a big investment in the school and the faculty, and A&M is a much stronger school "brand" in Texas than UNT.
August 05, 2016
The latest data from LSAC here. For 2015-16, LSATs taken were up a bit more than 4% from the prior year, while applications were up about 1%. So what does this latest data on June test-takers mean? Probably that this year will be like last in terms of volume of applications. Stability in the applicant pool is, of course, enough for schools to plan their budgets into the future and do faculty hiring.
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.
Aug. 11, 2016. Professor Barton responded without specifically answering the questions above, but generally conceded that IRS data is problematic.
Aug. 15, 2016. I replied to Barton.
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.