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 debt. For 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.
April 27, 2015 in Advice for Academic Job Seekers, Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Professional Advice, Science, Student Advice, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink
April 23, 2015
...here and see the chart, which suggests we've hit bottom in terms of the applicant pool (barring dramatic economic jolts, that is, which could move things either way). Of course this is a bottom last seen in the 1970s when there were 50 fewer law schools. But given how many law schools have refrained from hiring faculty due to uncertainty about the future, my guesstimate is that we'll see a slight uptick in law school hiring next year, since many schools have unfilled needs.
April 22, 2015
April 21, 2015
At the faculty lounge, Professor Bernard Burk of the University of North Carolina echoes questions raised earlier by Professor Merritt of Ohio State about whether it is unethical or misleading for law schools to report employment using the international standard definition of employment. I have discussed these issues extensively before.*
Employment statistics are primarily useful for purposes of comparing alternatives. Comparison requires standard measurements. Standardization is efficient because it reduces the number of definitions that must be learned to use data. The standard definition of employment is meaningful and useful because, notwithstanding preferences for particular kinds of work, a job of some kind is generally preferable to no job at all. This does not mean that employment is the only measurement one should consider, but rather that it is a useful measurement.
Because international standards exist, it is not necessary to explain to a college graduate what a centimeter means when describing the length of an object. Similarly it is not necessary to explain to college graduates contemplating law school what employment means when using the international standard definition of employment.**
College educated individuals who are unfamiliar with standard terminology can easily look up or inquire about the relevant definitions, and once they have learned, can begin to understand a world of data. The standard definitions of employment and unemployment can be quickly discovered through intuitive internet searches. (see searches for unemployment and employment definitions) These definitions are neither obscure nor technically challenging.
In addition, many law schools disclose bar passage rates that are lower than their employment rates. It seems doubtful that many college educated adults contemplating law school—in particular, the subset basing their decisions on outcome data such as employment and bar passage rates—would assume that every law graduate who is employed shortly after graduation is working as a lawyer when many of those graduates cannot legally practice law.
Critiquing international standardized measurements as inherently immoral is not without precedent.
According to Martin Gardner, during the 1800s, a U.S. group attacked the French metric system as atheistic and immoral.
“The president of the Ohio group, a civil engineer who prided himself on having an arm exactly one cubit in length, had this to say . . . : "We believe our work to be of God; we are actuated by no selfish or mercenary motive. We depreciate personal antagonisms of every kind, but we proclaim a ceaseless antagonism to that great evil, the French Metric System. . .The jests of the ignorant and the ridicule of the prejudiced, fall harmless upon us and deserve no notice. . . It is the Battle of the Standards. May our banner be ever upheld in the cause of Truth, Freedom, and Universal Brotherhood, founded upon a just weight and a just measure, which alone are acceptable to the Lord." “
“A later issue printed the words and music of a song, the fourth verse of which ran:
Then down with every "metric" scheme
Taught by the foreign school,
We'll worship still our Father's God!
And keep our Father's "rule"!
A perfect inch, a perfect pint,
The Anglo's honest pound,
Shall hold their place upon the earth,
Till time's last trump shall sound!”
Many thoughtful people believe the U.S.’s non-standard approach to measurement undermines U.S. competitiveness in science, math, engineering, and industry. Time is wasted learning and converting to and from a redundant and inefficient measurement system. This entails opportunity cost and leads to unnecessary and avoidable errors.
Law schools, the American Bar Association, and the National Association for Law Placement would be better served by using standard definitions for labor market measurements when standard definitions are available and widely in use elsewhere, or at least labeling non-standard definitions with names that will not be readily confused with standard definitions.
The ABA currently requires law schools to describe individuals as “Unemployed” who under standard definitions would be defined as either “Not in Labor Force” or “Unemployed.” In other words, “unemployment” as reported under ABA definitions will be higher than unemployment under the standard and most widely used government definition. A number of people have been confused by this, incorrectly claiming that “unemployment” for law graduates is unusually high in comparison to everyone else. In fact, under consistent measurements, the fraction of recent law graduates who are employed is higher than the overall proportion of the population that is employed. (Law graduates also do relatively well on the percent employed full-time).
I agree with Professor Burk that additional information about occupational categories could be useful to some users of data. However, I do not agree that presenting standard summary statistics is inherently misleading or unethical, particularly for the sophisticated audience using the data —college educated, internet savvy adults.
April 20, 2015
April 16, 2015
April 15, 2015
April 11, 2015
Deborah Merritt and Kyle McEntee conflated “response rates” with nonresponse bias and response bias. After I brought this error to light, Professor Merritt explained that she and Mr. McEntee were not confused about basic statistical terminology, but rather were being intentionally vague in their critique to be more polite* to the law schools.
Professor Merritt also changed the topic of conversation from Georgetown’s employment statistics—which had been mentioned in The New York Times and discussed by me, Professor Merritt, and Kyle McEntee—to the employment statistics of the institution where I teach.**
What Professor Merritt meant to say is that law schools have not been properly weighting their data to take into account nonresponse bias. This is an interesting critique. However, proper weights and adjustments to data should take into account all forms of nonresponse bias and response bias, not just the issue of over-representation of large law firms in NALP salary data raised by Professor Merritt.
While such over-representation would have an effect on the mean, it is unclear how much impact, if any, it would have on reported medians—the measure of central tendency used by The New York Times and critiqued by Mr. McEntee.
Other biases such as systematic under-reporting of incomes by highly educated individuals,*** under-reporting of bonuses and outside income, and the like should be taken into account.**** To the extent that these biases cut in opposite directions, they can offset each other. It’s possible that in aggregate the data are unbiased, or that the bias is much smaller than examination of a single bias would suggest.
Moreover, focusing on first year salaries as indicative of the value of a lifetime investment is itself a bias. As The Economic Value of a Law Degree, showed, incomes tend to rise rapidly among law graduates. They do not appreciably decrease, either, until the fourth decade of employment.
If Professor Merritt’s view is that differences between NALP, ABA, and U.S. Census Bureau data collection and reporting conventions make law school-collected data more difficult to compare to other data sources and make law school data less useful, then I am glad to see Professor Merritt coming around to a point I have made repeatedly.
I have gone further and suggested that perhaps the Census Bureau and other government agencies should be collecting all data for graduate degree programs to ensure the accuracy and comparability of data across programs and avoid wasting resources on duplicative data collection efforts.
This could also help avoid an undue amount of focus on short-term outcomes, which can be misleading in light of the rapid growth of law graduate earnings as they gain experience. The inappropriate focus on the short term can be misleading if students are not aware of the growth trajectory and how it compares to the growth trajectory of likely earnings without a law degree.
** This tactic, bringing up the employment statistics of the institution where those whom she disagrees with teach, is something of a habit for Professor Merritt. See her response Anders Walker at St. Louis).
*** Law graduates outside of the big firms are highly educated, high-income individuals compared to most of the rest of individuals in the United States. That is the benchmark used by researchers when they identified the reporting biases in census data that lead to under-reporting of incomes.
**** The risk of under-reporting income in law may be particularly high because of opportunities for tax evasion for those who run small businesses or have income outside of their salary.
UPDATE (4/14/2015): I just confirmed with NALP that their starting salary data does not include end of year bonuses.
April 10, 2015
Did law schools behave unethically by providing employment and earnings information without simultaneously reporting survey response rates? Or is this standard practice?
The answer is that not reporting response rates is standard practice in communication with most audiences. For most users of employment and earnings data, response rates are a technical detail that is not relevant or interesting. The U.S. Government and other data providers routinely report earnings and employment figures separate from survey response rates.*
Sometimes, too much information can be distracting.** It’s often best to keep communication simple and focus only on the most important details.
Nonresponse is not the same thing as nonresponse bias. Law school critics do not seem to understand this distinction. A problem only arises if the individuals who respond are systematically different from those who do not respond along the dimensions being measured. Weighting and imputation can often alleviate these problems. The critics’ claims about the existence, direction, and magnitude of biases in the survey data are unsubstantiated.
High non-response rates to questions about income are not a sign of something amiss, but rather are normal and expected. The U.S. Census Bureau routinely finds that questions about income have lower response rates (higher allocation rates) than other questions.
Law school critics claim that law school graduates who do not respond to questions about income are likely to have lower incomes than those who do respond. This claim is not consistent with the evidence. To the contrary, high-income individuals often value privacy and are reluctant to share details about their finances.***
Another potential problem is “response bias”, in which individuals respond to survey questions in a way that is systematically different from the underlying value being measured. For example, some individuals may under report or over-report their incomes.
The best way to determine whether or not we have nonresponse bias or response bias problems is to gather additional information about non-responders and responders.
Researchers have compared income reported to Census surveys with administrative earnings data from the Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service. They find that highly educated, high-income individuals systematically under-report their incomes, while less educated, lower income individuals over-report. (Assuming the administrative data is more accurate than the survey data).
Part of the problem seems to be that bonuses are underreported, and bonuses can be substantial. Another problem seems to be that high-income workers sometimes report their take-home pay (after tax withholding and deductions for benefits) rather than their gross pay.
Other studies have also found that response bias and nonresponse bias lead to underestimation of earnings and employment figures.
In other words, there may indeed be biases in law school earnings data, but if there is, it is likely in the opposite direction of the one the law school critics have claimed.
Of course, the presence of such biases in law school data would not necessarily be a problem if the same biases exist in data on employment and earnings for alternatives to law school. After all, earnings and employment data is only useful when compared to a likely alternative to law school.
As with gross employment data, the critics are yet again claiming that an uncontroversial and nearly universal data reporting practice, regularly used by the United States Government, is somehow scandalous when done by law schools.
The only thing the law school critics have demonstrated is their unfamiliarity with basic statistical concepts that are central to their views.
* Reporting earnings and employment estimates without response rates in communication intended for a general audience—and even some fairly technically sophisticated audiences—is standard practice for U.S. government agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. A few examples below:
- Earnings and unemployment by education level
- Unemployment rates
- Employment population ratio
- Tabular summaries from
** Information on response rates is available for researchers working with microdata to develop their own estimates, and for those who want to scour the technical and methodological documentation. But response rates aren’t of much interest to most audiences.
*** After the JD researchers noted that young law graduates working in large urban markets—presumably a relatively high-income group—were particularly reluctant to respond to the survey. From After the JD III:
“Responses . . . varied by urban and rural or regional status, law school rank, and practice setting. By Wave 2, in the adjusted sample, the significant difference between respondents and nonrespondents continued to be by geographic areas, meaning those from larger legal markets (i.e. New York City) were less likely to respond to the survey. By Wave 3, now over 12 years out into practice, nonrespondents and respondents did not seem to differ significantly in these selected characteristics.”
In the first wave of the study, non-respondents were also more likely to be male and black. All in all, it may be hard to say what the overall direction of any nonresponse bias might be with respect to incomes. A fairly reasonable assumption might be that the responders and non-responders are reasonably close with respect to income, at least within job categories.