Friday, June 24, 2016

Why The New York Times Should Correct Remaining Factual Errors in Its Law School Coverage

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. 



1. 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)

This is the employment population ratio for individuals with a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree.  It is the percentage of the population that is employed under a broad definition of employment (part time jobs count; jobs not requiring a bachelor’s or advanced degree count; jobs not related to field of study count)).

You can see clearly from the chart that the employment population ratio has not recovered to pre-recession levels. The total number of jobs (broadly defined) has increased, but this increase is not keeping pace with growth in the educated population. Employment rates are lower for those with lower levels of education, so these educated folks—only around 73 percent of whom have any job whatsoever—are the lucky ones in this economy.

Noam Scheiber responds:

Let me unpack the sentence you consider problematic: “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.”

(FYI, the sentence was tweaked before it closed for print, so that it now reads: “While demand for other white-collar jobs has grown substantially since the start of the recession, law firms and corporations are finding they can make do with far fewer in-house lawyers than before, squeezing those just starting their careers.”)
There are basically two claims here mashed together, a little inelegantly I admit, but what can you do. The first is that the recovery in demand for lawyers has lagged far behind the recovery in demand for other white-collar jobs.

Professor Simkovic responds:

Noam, what you are presenting here is a different claim from what you wrote in either version of your article.  The phrase “far fewer lawyers than before” is not ambiguous.  Both versions of your article claim that there were fewer lawyers working in corporations and law firms in recent periods after the recession than there were before the recession.  As data from multiple Census surveys and the BLS demonstrate, this claim is factually incorrect. 

You made a factual error and accidentally told your readers something that was false.  That false statement needs to be corrected or “clarified.”
The lesser claim you are advancing now—that there’s been faster growth in demand for other white collar jobs, and that growth in “management occupation” positions suggests that law graduates have been hurt more by the recession so that they struggle more than other educated workers to find good high paying jobs—is once again problematic. 

Here’s the problem: you are confusing education—which is what labor economists call a “treatment”—with occupation, which is an outcome that is influenced by the treatment. I’ve discussed these issues before. See Opportunities, College Majors and Occupations and Occupation and the versatile law degree. 

Management positions are typically highly desirable and highly competitive positions that require years of work experience and for which there are more interested candidates than there are positions available.  More highly educated workers make more money both because they are more likely to obtain attractive positions and because they earn more in the same occupation than less educated workers, because they are more productive.

Law graduates have a better chance than college graduates of obtaining attractive management positions.  For example, only around 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the U.S. population has a law degree, but around 10 percent of CEOs of large companies have a law degree  Advanced degree holders are generally over-represented, in management and other attractive positions.

You seem to be making three flawed assumptions:  (1) Anyone who can get into a low ranked law school—but can’t get a job as a lawyer, and maybe even can’t pass the bar exam—could instead have easily gotten an attractive and highly competitive “management occupation” position without going to law school or another line of advanced study that would also entail years of study and accumulation of debt; (2) Going to law school doesn’t improve people’s chances of getting management positions or other attractive positions besides legal practice; (3) Going to law school doesn’t improve pay in management occupations or other attractive positions.  These assumptions are inconsistent with the data and the labor economics literature.

More importantly, a detailed occupation-by-occupation analysis is unnecessary.  If demand for workers with a particular level or type of education is higher than for others, then a higher proportion of the workers who are in demand will have jobs and the workers who are in demand will make more money.
All that is needed are employment ratios and earnings premiums, and these are the measures favored by labor economists.  And they show that law graduates continue to do far better than most.

Noam Scheiber continues: I think the BLS OES numbers are much sounder for lawyers than CPS because they don’t include solo practitioners. I assume solo practitioners are the reason why the CPS numbers shot up in 2009 and again in 2011--lots of recently laid off or never-employed lawyers hanging out a shingle and calling themselves a law firm even if they had no revenue or clients to speak of. (Which would arguably make CPS a better measure of the supply of lawyers than the demand for them.) The BLS OES numbers showed no such spike.

Professor Simkovic responds:

If CPS and ACS were including lots of “nominal” lawyers who weren’t making any money, then CPS and ACS should probably have very low average earnings for lawyers--probably lower average earnings than BLS lawyers.  But CPS and ACS actually report substantially higher average earnings for lawyers than BLS.  And average incomes for “self-employed” lawyers are quite high, contrary to your hypothesis about ACS/CPS being flooded with large numbers of solo practitioners barely scraping by.  I’m including total income, since part of self-employed lawyers’ incomes will be earnings or salary (wage and salary income), and some will be distributions from their practice (business income).

Here is average total personal income for full-time lawyers (working 35 hours per week or more), along with counts and standard errors, from ACS.  There is a bit of a dip in incomes in 2009 to 2011 (which might really be 2008 to 2010 because respondents report for the previous 12 months), but average lawyer incomes remain extremely high (above $150,000).  In the most recent two years of data available (2013-2014, which might refer in part to 2012-2013), average income for this group of full-time employed lawyers was $164,000.  If you want to exclude government lawyers, as you did for the counts, the lawyer incomes will be even higher.  The numbers are likely to be pretty similar in CPS and ACS. 

Here is a breakdown by class of worker breakdown by class of worker.  The self-employed lawyers are doing quite well.  In fact our self-employed, not incorporated lawyers are typically making substantially more than those working in government or for nonprofits, while the self-employed, incorporated lawyers are highest paid of the classes of workers.

In our prior discussion of “full-time” workers, I already screened CPS in my post above to only include individuals who are usually working 35 hours per week or more, so people who are only nominally working or working part time are already out of the counts—for both lawyers and other occupations, to ensure apples to apples comparisons.  You can’t do this in BLS.  There’s no easy way to exclude part time workers across occupations.

There’s probably no “idiosyncratic problem” with CPS’s employment statistics, although measurements will be a bit less precise than in ACS because of sample size.[1]

Noam Scheiber: BLS numbers for lawyers are up 9.74% between 2007 and 2015--from 555,770 to 609,930. By contrast, if you take a broad white-collar category like “management occupations,” it’s up 15.5%. And if you look at all people with at least a bachelor’s degree, it’s up 17.6%, almost double the increase for lawyers. (You have to rely on the CPS for this, but I don’t think it suffers from the kind of idiosyncratic problem that the lawyer number suffers from.)
All of which is to say, I think the claim that the recovery for other white-collar workers has been a lot stronger than for lawyers is well-supported.

Professor Simkovic responds:

See above regarding management positions.

No matter which data you use—CPS, ACS; BLS or SIPP where appropriate—your story is wrong about there being fewer lawyers after the recession than before. 
If you want to compare the demand for law graduates to the demand for workers with alternate kinds of education, you need to look at employment rates and earnings premiums, not count jobs based on arbitrary and untested assumptions about which kinds of education boost earnings and employment prospects in which kind of job.

Noam Scheiber: That brings us to the second claim--that law firms and corporations are making do with far fewer full-time/in-house lawyers than before. The formulation I used there is intended to reflect what’s happening on a proportional basis: For a given corporation or law firm of a given size, far fewer of its lawyers are in-house.

This strikes me as the most intuitive interpretation of that statement, since otherwise the claim doesn’t have a lot of content. An increase in the number of corporations could produce a rise in the number of in-house lawyers, even if each corporation is using far fewer lawyers. So could an increase in the size of each corporation, even if the corporations are using fewer in-house lawyers for a given amount of legal work or a given level of earnings or revenue. The proportional interpretation is what gets at whether there’s been some kind of structural shift in the market for lawyers, which is of course what I’m talking about in that paragraph, whose first sentence describes “a broad transformation of the legal profession.” 

Professor Simkovic:

I don’t think you understood the data in my last response.  If there were proportionately fewer lawyers compared to overall growth in employment, then lawyers would constitute a smaller fraction of the workforce than they used to.  But the data shows that lawyers actually constitute a larger fraction of the workforce than they used to, and a larger share of total labor income.

To the extent there’s a transformation happening, it’s that lawyers are gradually becoming a more and more important part of the work force, not just in government, but also in the private sector.

The factual claims in your article, and that you are repeating here, are incorrect.  They should be corrected.

Noam Scheiber: The absolute interpretation is muddied by the business cycle: higher GDP is going to produce more legal work and will likely require more lawyers, even if we need less of them to support a given level of GDP.

Professor Simkovic:

The relevant comparison is alternate employment, not GDP.  GDP per capita increases over time because workers become more productive as they become more educated and technology improves and trade expands.  This increase in productivity benefits educated workers such as lawyers, who have seen their real incomes go up over the long run, as well as their relative numbers in the workforce.

This isn’t a cyclical issue.  It’s a secular issue.  Take a look at CPS.  For decades, across business cycles, over the long term, the number and proportion of lawyers in the workforce has increased and their real earnings (after controlling for demographics) have increased.

Noam Scheiber: So is the proportional claim true? It seems inarguably so.

Professor Simkovic:

No, your claim is not consistent with any of the government data.  If you don’t believe me, ask labor economists who have recently published peer reviewed empirical studies and are familiar with CPS and ACS and BLS. 

Noam Scheiber: I don’t think the government collects numbers on contract lawyers or lawyers who work for non-traditional legal service providers like Axiom, but surveys of the legal profession show that this type of work has shot up since the recession.

Non-traditional legal services providers have increased their employment from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing, which in percentage terms might look big but relative to the number of lawyers in more traditional roles is small. 

For example, the Altman Weil annual survey shows that 39 percent of law firms used contract lawyers in 2009, whereas 56 percent of firms used them in 2016. And this heavily understates the change because 2009 was the final year of the recession. We can be certain that the use of contract lawyers was far lower in 2007 than 2009, just before the recession.

Professor Simkovic:

Outsourcing and use of temporary workers happens everywhere, not just for lawyers.  You don’t escape the bad labor market by not going to law school—you exacerbate it.
Compared to bachelor’s degree holders, law degree holders are more likely to find any work, they are more likely to work full time, they are more likely to have good benefits, and when they do find work they make more money.

If you want to write a story about outsourcing and temporary jobs, the story might go as follows:

"Throughout the economy, employers are turning more to temporary workers.  Not even law is immune, although lawyers continue to be far safer than most."

 That’s the story the data might support.  You’ll have to check the ACS or CPS data yourself.

Your story from Friday suggests that law is some sort of unique problem spot, which is the exact opposite of what all of the data shows. 
Obviously this is not your intent, but these mistakes are not harmless.  You are feeding your readers misinformation that is likely to lead them to make decisions that will make them worse off financially.

Noam Scheiber: Likewise, Altman Weil has found that corporate legal departments increased their spending on alternative service providers from 3.9 percent of their budgets in 2012 to 6.1 percent in 2016. And, this too heavily understates the change since 2007, at which point the share was probably pretty close to zero.

Professor Simkovic:

I’m not sure why this is relevant to law school graduates.  There are more lawyers working, and they are making better money than most people.  If these other service providers hire lawyers, they’ll be counted in CPS and ACS and their incomes will be reflected in those surveys.  Lawyer is an occupation across employer types and industries.

Noam Scheiber: In fairness, these same surveys show corporations shifting legal work that they used to send to law firms in-house. But if you look at the total amount of legal work done by corporations and law firms combined, it seems pretty clear that a lot less of it is done by in-house lawyers.

Professor Simkovic:

Revenue and profits at law firms are up. Corporations have hired more full time lawyers.  They’re paying them well.  The data shows growth in spending on lawyers.

Noam Schiber: FWIW, the Altman Weil surveys show a similar shift toward part-timers as opposed to full-timers, though the baseline for contractors in the surveys is a little harder to make out.
Also FWIW, there are other things going on here that presumably cause the BLS data to overstate the growth in the absolute volume of lawyers since 2007. For example, we know there has been a trend toward de-equitizing partners that started in the early-to-mid 2000s. When a partner gets de-equitized, they frequently go from not counting in the BLS numbers (since it only counts employees, not owners) to counting (since they’re suddenly an employee).

Professor Simkovic:

Again, these are details that probably don’t matter and are more likely to confuse than to illuminate.  Incomes for lawyers remain high.  Total profits, and not just profits per partner, are up at law firms.  There are more law firm partners than there used to be, even if there is turnover in which individuals happen to be partners.There’s no sign that the labor market for law graduates is shrinking.  Earnings premiums might be down from highs just before the recession, but about what they’ve been over the long term.

[1] CPS is widely used and forms the basis of both the employment population ratio and the national unemployment rate.  The overall pattern is similar to BLS and ACS, and the total numbers are similar to ACS.  Like CPS, BLS numbers also show a one-year dip in lawyer employment in 2008 (from 556,000 in 2007 down to 554,000 in 2008) and recovery in 2009 (up to 557,000).  ACS—which has a much larger sample than CPS—shows similar (and generally slightly higher) lawyer count than CPS, and both CPS and ACS are similar to (and lower than) actively licensed lawyer counts published by the ABA.  I’ve already discussed the differences between CPS, ACS and BLS. 

2. The story states:

“Such is the atavistic rage among those who went to law school seeking the upper-middle-class status and security often enjoyed by earlier generations, only to find themselves on a financial treadmill and convinced their schools misled them . . .”

This implies that things were better financially for “earlier generations” of law graduates than they are for recent graduates. That’s incorrect. (error #3).

Student loan default rates for law school graduates were lower in recent years than in the 1990s.

Lawyer and law graduate earnings and earnings premiums have also increased over the long term after adjusting for inflation and controlling for race and sex.   Whites with or without a law degree typically earn more than minorities with the same level of education. Men with or without a law degree typically earn more than women with the same level of education. Law is more diverse than it used to be, but each race-sex group is doing better financially than similar individuals in the past.

Because the value of a law degree is so much higher than tuition (around 10 times as high on average), even relatively small increases in the law earnings premium can offset a large increase in tuition.


Noam Scheiber responds:

Student default rates have been lower in recent years than in other decades because the rules on federal student debt have changed. Thanks to income-based repayment--particularly the 2012 Pay as You Earn Program--there is no reason for anyone to default. All they have to do to avoid default in most cases is pay 10 percent of their monthly discretionary income. It would make no sense to default under these rules.

Professor Simkovic:

The data shows that after controlling for demographics and inflation, lawyers are earning more in recent years than they were earning decades ago.  You are not responding to my point.

The availability of more flexible repayment schedules does make borrowers better off than they were in the past.  Income based repayment is a sensible policy because incomes increase with age and work experience, and because the government is better positioned to absorb and spread risks.

Law school graduates have had lower default rates than most borrowers for decades, both before and after IBR programs became available.  IBR and PAYE can’t have caused lower default rates before these programs were available.

If it were so easy to avoid default, then default rates for everyone would be zero and there would be no difference by type of education.  But in recent years, overall 2-year cohort default rates are 10 percent, while they are around 2 percent for law graduates.

Law graduates don’t just have lower default rates.  The evidence shows that they are paying down their loans.

Noam Scheiber: But even though former law students aren’t defaulting, that doesn’t mean they’re on the path to timely repayment. Among other things, their debt levels are rising quite significantly. In addition to the recent numbers I cited in my story, this New America study shows the median level of debt for law school borrowers rising from about $90,000 in 2008 to over $140,000 in 2012.

Professor Simkovic: 

This study does not support your claim that law students are unable to repay their loans. 

Leaving aside questions about the quality of the think tank study you cite, the study you cite is NOT about students paying down their debts over time after graduation.  It’s about debt levels at or around graduation for students graduating in different years, which reflects differences in parental support, government support, tuition, scholarships and grants for different cohorts, not ability to repay debt in the subsequent years following graduation for any one cohort.

The data on repayment over time shows most law graduates paying down the balance of their debts in the years after they graduate, and the data on income suggests that law graduates can afford to pay down their debts given enough time. 

You should talk to the authors of After the JD about this and find an economist at the Department of Education who can discuss their repayment rate data to you.

As far as repayment schedules go, people have 40 year careers.  There’s no reason why they should repay their mortgages over 30 years and their student loans over 10.   Student loan repayment schedules should enable workers to make a big investment in early years when they have the most years of work ahead of them and the value of education is highest.  They should be able to smooth consumption between later years of high income and earlier years of lower income.

Whether debt should be forgiven after a certain number of years is a separate policy question, but there’s no good reason why the “standard” repayment schedule for student loans shouldn’t be a 25 year or 30 years and be more closely tailored to match lifetime income profiles.

Noam Scheiber: It’s not worth reviewing the controversy about your work on law graduate earnings here, since the criticisms are well-established [Scheiber links to a newspaper quote from anti-law-school-activist Kyle McEntee, a blog post from scamblogger and magazine writer Matt Leichter, and another blog post from novelist and anti-corporate-law-firm-cultural-critic Steven J. Harper.  All of Scheiber's links refer to a pre-publication draft of The Economic Value of a Law Degree].

Professor Simkovic:

There were indeed some legitimate critiques of drafts, which led to improvements in the final published, peer-reviewed study and also led to follow-up studies on cohort effects and college major and a loosely related study on taxation and public finance). Frank McIntyre and I have addressed many of the legitimate critiques, and that’s why our study passed a rigorous peer-review process with close scrutiny by referees who are sophisticated empirical researchers. 

Outside of your reporting at Valparaiso, you seem to have mostly cited to critics  who frankly lack the expertise to understand our work (and repeatedly mischaracterized it), could not find real faults with our data or analytic methods, but nevertheless disliked our conclusions.  

If you don’t trust me or the peer review process, run The Economic Value of a Law Degree or Timing Law School by a few PhD economists who have published peer reviewed empirical labor economics research sometime in the last couple of years. Focus less on finding people who agree with your current views and more on finding people who have relevant technical expertise, with academic credentials and peer reviewed publications to back them up. 

You can read substantive responses to legitimate critiques in Leiter's Law School Reports and look at my and Frank McIntyre’s follow-up studies on SSRN. 

After you’ve followed the debate and spoken with legitimate econometric experts, I would love to hear any serious critiques you may have that we have not already addressed.

If you think we’re wrong, cite to a better peer-reviewed paper.  If you can’t, that should tell you something.

Noam Scheiber: But suffice it to say, I think it’s strange to respond to a claim that the economic prospects of people graduating after the recession have fundamentally changed relative to those who graduated before the recession with a study that only includes people who graduated prior to 2009.

Professor Simkovic:

We have a follow-up peer-reviewed study, Timing Law School that includes individuals who graduated after 2008 using ACS and proxies for law graduates.  I linked to it—and to previous press coverage of it in the New York Times—in my open letter to you only a few days ago. 

Here is a summary of the specific point you’ve raised with a chart from an older version of that paper.

The original study includes earnings data through the end of 2013, and young law graduates should still be sensitive to changing economic conditions within a few years after they graduate.  Student loan default rates were also available for recent graduates, and show law graduates maintaining their relative advantage after the recession.  I have yet to see any empirical evidence that law graduates are disproportionately using IBR at anywhere near the rate that would be needed to explain their relatively low default rates.  To the contrary, their repayment rates seem to be as high or higher than other borrowers.

I repeat—you need to consult better sources of information and the New York Times needs to issue a correction.

3. The story states:

“Yet in financial terms, there is almost no way for Mr. Acosta to climb out of the crater he dug for himself in law school, when he borrowed over $200,000. The government will eventually forgive the loan — in 25 years — if he’s unable to repay it, as is likely on his small-town lawyer’s salary. But the Internal Revenue Service will treat the forgiven amount as income, leaving him what could easily be a $70,000 tax bill on the eve of retirement, and possibly much higher.”

First, the 25-year payment period is incorrect for Acosta, and would apply to very few people contemplating law school today. (error # 4/misleading statement)

Federal student loans are forgiven after 20 years of payments under the recent PAYE program—not 25—and after 10 years of work for the government or non-profits.  

Acosta is eligible for PAYE because he had no federal student loans outstanding as of October 2007 and borrowed for law school starting in 2013. I confirmed these facts in an interview with Acosta today.

Most recent law students will also be eligible for PAYE, so this is also misleading.

Second, the description of taxation of debt forgiveness is incorrect. (error #5)

Section 108 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that debt forgiveness is only taxable as income to the extent that the taxpayer has assets greater than his debts at the time of the forgiveness. If a student borrower has unencumbered assets that exceed his debts, he can use those assets to repay his loans. If he doesn’t have unencumbered assets, then he won’t pay any taxes when his student loans are forgiven.

In other words, either he is required to pays no taxes on debt forgiveness, or he accumulates enough assets that even after paying any taxes on debt forgiveness he will still have savings left over. If it’s the latter, then it means he can afford to pay those taxes and might have been able to afford to repay his student loans in full without any student loan forgiveness.

More broadly, the Acosta anecdote is atypical and potentially misleading because the data indicates that most law school graduates do in fact repay their debts in full—and earn more than enough extra to do so compared to bachelor’s degree holders. Acosta says he is hopeful that he will eventually be able to repay his debts, that he fully understood the employment prospects and the debt going in, and that Valparaiso did not mislead him but rather gave him an opportunity. (see quote above)

Even at the 25th percentile, toward the bottom, the lifetime present value of a law degree as of the start of law school is around $400,000 (based on around a $20,000 boost to earnings per year). Law graduates typically see their earnings rise over time and not peak until middle age (around their 50s).

After the JD III shows graduates of 4th tier law schools who passed the bar exam and were working full time (not necessarily as a lawyer) earning a median of $100,000 per year 12 years after graduation.

Even at 4th tier law schools, by 12 years after graduation, the percent of students with zero debt had increased from 13% to 37%, and the percent with more than $100,000 in debt fell from 17% to 14%. This was a group that graduated in 2001 when debt levels were somewhat lower, but not spectacularly so.

Acosta may be unusual because his advanced age means he’ll likely have fewer years of work with a boost to earnings and his decision to focus on criminal law rather than a more lucrative area means he may earn less than most. But most law graduates complete their educations in their mid to late 20s, and most do not go into low paid areas like criminal law.

I think you could do more to avoid suggesting to your readers that Acosta is the typical law school graduate. Acosta realizes that he isn’t.

Noam Scheiber responds:

You’re right about Acosta’s debt forgiveness period. He and I discussed this and he said the person providing him tax advice told him it would be forgiven in 25 years rather than 20, which I assumed was because he’d attended college and incurred student debt before 2007. (He’s 39, as I note in the piece.) But I didn’t ask him explicitly whether he had any federal student debt as of October 2007, which I should have. It turns out he did not.

Apparently one source of confusion was that his fiancée incurred federal student debt prior to October 2007, so hers is forgivable only in 25 years. They were under the impression that the forgiveness period could be 25 years for both of them as a result of this. Anyway, we will correct the mistake.

Professor Simkovic:

Thank you!

Noam Scheiber: On the second point about treating the forgiven debt as income, the story was tweaked prior to the print deadline to say: “the Internal Revenue Service will probably treat the forgiven amount as income, leaving him what could easily be a $70,000 tax bill on the eve of retirement, and possibly much higher.”

Professor Simkovic:

Assuming a 35% tax rate and $200K in debt at forgiveness, this makes sense only if you think he will “probably” have a positive net worth of $200,000 or more on the date of his debt forgiveness (excluding the forgiven loans).  You should make that assumption explicit in the article.

Noam Scheiber: More broadly, your point about Mr. Acosta either having enough savings to pay his tax bill, or being insolvent and not having to pay taxes, is bizarre. Most people making at least mid-to-high five figures, which includes 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 (especially since they can do income-based repayment, so student debt repayment isn’t eating up too much of their savings).

Professor Simkovic:

Noam, it turns out that you and I both believe that most law graduates end up doing relatively well over the long run. 

Median household net worth in the United States was less than $60,000 in 2013 (the most recent SCF). For those with heads of household age 45 to 54, it was just over $100,000. 

That’s for a household—typically 1.5 to 2 earners—not an individual. 

Noam Scheiber: But that doesn’t remotely mean that a $70,000 or more increase in their tax bill in a given year would not impose a financial hardship. Even if you’re on track to have $1 million in assets when you retire, those assets supposed to last you a good 20 years. Losing $70,000 or more in a single year is a huge hit.

Professor Simkovic:

Most people have far less than $200,000 to fund retirement.  If you want to write an article about people who are struggling financially, about 70 to 80 percent of the U.S. population would be better candidates than the least advantaged law school graduates.

If the money is retirement savings, then it’s a hit that will be spread out over the 20 years or so of retirement and not felt all at once. The typical work-life is closer to 40 years than to 20, so most law school graduates will have another 20 years to save for retirement after their loans are paid off, assuming 20 years to repayment.

The way to think of debt forgiveness—if it is taxed—is that only 70 percent of the debt is really forgiven.  Assuming a 30 percent tax rate, it’s not a hit of 30 percent to the individual, it’s a gain of 70 percent. 

Noam Scheiber: (One other point here: that $70,000 could easily be much more, as I say in the story. Heather Jarvis, a leading expert on federal student debt, ran some numbers for me to game it out. We assumed someone starting off with Mr. Acosta’s nearly $240,000 balance facing a 6 percent interest rate--roughly the current going rate--and a starting salary of $60,000, who experienced 3 percent wage growth over 20 years and made the minimum payments under the most recent income-based repayment program. She found that they would owe over $400,000 after 20 years, leading potentially to a much larger tax bill.)

Professor Simkovic:

The wage growth rate assumption in this exercise is unrealistically low for most law graduates.  See After the JD I, II, and III or Economic Value of a Law Degree.  You’re basically assuming that his wages never grow after adjusting for inflation, when they are likely to grow substantially in real terms.  Assuming 3% inflation, a nominal wage growth rate closer to 6% to 12% might be more realistic, especially for the first few years.

If someone’s wage growth is as low as you’ve assumed, that person is not going to accumulate much in assets, so he’s not going to pay much if any taxes on that debt forgiveness.  In addition, it is not entirely clear to what extent discharge of accrued interest would be taxable because student loan interest is sometimes deductible under IRC section 221.  See IRC 108e2).

4. You have a quote from Campos saying

“Why does Valpo have an economic structure that looks like Harvard Law School’s? . . .It makes absolutely no sense to do it. It’s why they have to charge Harvardesque prices.”

This is incorrect. Harvard at full price costs about 50% more than Valpraiso at full price. (error #6)

Valpraiso’s annual tuition is $40,000.  Harvard’s annual tuition is $60,000

The kind of student who can gain admission to Harvard with no scholarship money can probably gain a full scholarship to Valpraiso. For anyone choosing between Valpraiso and Harvard, Valpraiso would be a much less expensive option.

And for anyone admitted to Valpraiso without any scholarship, there are less expensive and lower quality law schools which will enable the prospective law student to sit for a bar exam, including non-ABA approved law schools in California.

Prospective law students are routinely presented with cost and quality tradeoffs, and they decide how much they want to invest in their education, just as they decide how much house they want to buy or what health insurance plan they are willing to pay for.

Noam Scheiber responds:

You’re being a bit overly literal here. Campos didn’t say they charge the same price as Harvard. He said they charge “Harvardesque” prices, which in this context means “very expensive.” I think the average reader would agree that $40,000 per year qualifies.

Professor Simkovic:

Readers are going to interpret this as meaning that Valparaiso costs about the same thing as Harvard while providing a lower quality of education. Campos seems to be suggesting—incorrectly—that there are no tradeoffs between law schools when it comes to quality versus price.  

$40,000 per year is not “Harvardesque.”  It isn’t “Tulane-esque” either.  Maybe it’s “Mitchell Hamline-esque.” 

If your average reader thinks $40,000 is a lot of money, then your average reader would want you to note the difference between $120,000 over three years and $180,000 over three years—which comes to $60,000.  When you take into account tuition discounting, it is probably closer to a $180,000 difference over three years, since the kind of student who is actually choosing between Valparaiso and Harvard can probably go to Valparaiso for free with a full scholarship.

There are huge differences in resources between an institution like Harvard and institutions like Valparaiso.  Students get the quality of education that they are willing to pay for (or in the case of schools with endowments, better than the quality they are willing to pay for).

Labor economists have found links between expenditures per student in colleges and the boost to earnings after controlling for student ability levels.

The dollars behind this pricing mistake are big enough, and the erroneous nature of the argument being made is important enough, that an official correction is in order.

That being said, this is clearly less important that the other issues we are discussion. 


Whether $120,000 is a lot to pay for a law degree depends on what that law degree is worth.  If you want to comment on the cost of the degree, you should compare it to the value of the degree and to the next best alternative (which is not going to law school at Harvard for most of the people contemplating Valparaiso).

At the 25th percentile, a law degree is typically worth around $400,000 in present value assuming a 40 year career.  The value is a bit higher for whites and for humanities and social science majors.  This is before taxes.  This means a 25th percentile law degree is typically worth around $280,000 after taxes and $120,000 to the government.  At any private cost less than $280,000, it’s a good private investment.  If you throw in some partial debt forgiveness, it’s an even better investment. If you can pay $120,000 at a lower ranked law school for something worth $280,000 to you, that’s a good deal.

For Acosta, the expected value would be lower because he’s older, but even with a 25-year career, odds are good he’ll at least break even and probably come out a bit ahead, especially with debt forgiveness.


5. The story relies on Campos saying:

“Officially, many stress the growing availability of jobs for which a law degree is preferred rather than required — the kind of job Ms. Anderson has been searching for. But given the vagueness of the category, Mr. Campos said, discounting the number of these jobs by 50 percent is a good rule of thumb.”

This is Campos’s opinion and not a fact, but it highlights the problem with relying on “experts” without expertise.

Even when law graduates do not practice law, over the long term, they make substantially more money than they would likely have made without a law degree.

Noam Scheiber responds:

Three points here:

1.) As Matt Leichter has pointed out, your paper doesn’t demonstrate that law graduates in jobs that don’t requite a law degree or bar passage make more money strictly because they went to law school. It assumes they do. If they didn’t need to go to law school to get those jobs, which seems at worst plausible and in many cases likely given that those jobs don’t require a law degree, then law school was a waste of time and money for them. 

Professor Simkovic:

The blogger you mention is advocating an approach to causal inference which is not accepted by labor economists. He is wrong. You would be doing a disservice to your readers if you relied on him.

As MIT labor economist Joshua Angrist and LSE labor economist Jörn-Steffen Pischke explain in Mostly Harmless Econometrics:

Some variables are bad controls and should not be included in a regression model even when their inclusion might be expected to change the short regression coefficients.   Bad controls are variables that are themselves outcome variables . . . That is, bad controls might just as well be dependent variables too. The essence of the bad control problem is a version of selection bias . . .

To illustrate, suppose we are interested in the effects of a college degree on earnings and that people can work in one of two occupations, white collar and blue collar. A college degree clearly opens the door to higher-paying white collar jobs.  Should occupation therefore be seen as an omitted variable in a regression of wages on schooling?  After all, occupation is highly correlated with both education and pay.  Perhaps it’s best to look at the effect of college on wages for those within an occupation, say white collar only.   

 The problem with this argument is that once we acknowledge the fact that college affects occupation, comparisons of wages by college degree status within an occupation are no longer apples-to-apples, even if college degree completion is randomly assigned . . . [because of selection bias].

 We would do better to control only for variables that are not themselves caused by education. 

In a recent article, David Neumark and co-authors also include a helpful explanation of the problems with controlling for occupation and “underemployment”, or relying on BLS occupational earnings projections when trying to measure education earnings premiums:

For nearly every occupational grouping, wage returns are higher for more highly-educated workers even if the BLS says such high levels of education are not necessary. For example . . . for management occupations, the estimated coefficients for Master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees are all above the estimated coefficient for a Bachelor’s degree, which is the BLS required level. . . ..

If [there were an oversupply of educated workers], we might expect to see higher unemployment and greater underemployment of more highly-educated workers in the United States.  As noted earlier, we do not find evidence of this kind of underemployment based on earnings data. Similarly, labor force participation rates are higher and unemployment rates are lower for more highly educated workers.”

Economists at the BLS emphasize that educational earnings premiums, and not employment projections, are the key measure of the value of education:

The general problem with addressing the question whether the U.S. labor market will have a shortage of workers in specific occupations over the next 10 years is the difficulty of projecting, for each detailed occupation, the dynamic labor market responses to shortage conditions. . . .

Since the late 1970s, average premiums paid by the labor markets to those with higher levels of education have increased.  It is the growing distance, on average, between those with more education, compared with those with less, that speaks to a general preference on the part of employers to hire those with skills associated with higher levels of education.

Causal inference is at the heart of labor economics and Frank and I talk about it extensively in our article.  The ideal would be to randomly assign one member of each of several pairs of identical people to go to law school, but that’s not possible.

Realistically, the best option available is regression analysis controlling for differences between the kinds of people who go to law school and those who don’t.  You can only control for pre-treatment (pre-law school) differences, because those cannot be affected by going to law school.

That’s what Frank and I did, and we have far more extensive controls than most labor economics studies, for example of the value of college or high school.  We have standardized test scores, college major, race, sex, self-reported priorities and expectations about money and career as a teenager, etc. The differences between law students and the typical college graduate that predict earnings are pretty small.  In other words, you’d expect the typical law graduate to earn only slightly more than the typical college graduate but for going to law school.

One of the big issues is that law graduates are disproportionately humanities and social science majors, which means their typically high college GPAs don’t translate into much higher earnings without a law degree.

Most of the difference in earnings between law graduates and their college-educated peers is because of law school.

We’d love to see a study of identical twins, one going to law school the other not, or a good IV study if someone ever produces one.  But it’s likely the results would be similar to what we get using regression.  People have compared simple regressions to twin and IV results, and they get similar results for college graduates.

Our study is consistent with accepted methods of causal inference in labor economics and it shows that a law degree boosts earnings, including for those not practicing law.


Noam Scheiber:

2) Leichter has looked carefully at the numbers and drawn a conclusion that’s basically in line with Campos’s:

The aforementioned 2012 NALP analysis gives the following examples of JD advantage jobs that class of 2011 graduates obtained but in my opinion likely either underuse or don't really benefit from much law school instruction:

  • Law school research assistant or fellow – 4.7 percent
  • Legal temp agency – 4.2 percent
  • Other business settings not specifically tracked 19.7 percent
  • Law clerks – 12.3 percent
  • Paralegals – 3.0 percent

These examples already add up to 43.9 percent and while the remaining job categories looked like better fits for law school graduates, they only accounted for another 36.5 percent of JD advantage jobs.

Professor Simkovic:

College graduates also often end up in jobs that don’t require their degrees and are not related to what they studied.  So do people with other graduate degrees.  This does not mean that they did not benefit from their degrees financially. My understanding is that you studied mathematics and economics.  You see seem to have put those subjects to profitable use without being a mathematician or an economist or financier.

Labor economists widely agree on this point.  Read Neumark or Angrist or the Department of Labor economist in some of the quotes I’ve linked to above.  The correct measure is earnings premiums without regard to occupation.

The higher the level of education, the better the odds of finding a good job, and the higher the likely pay.  It is probabilistic rather than deterministic, as are most things in life.

Occupation might matter if people place consumption value on being a lawyer above and beyond how much they can earn.  But once again, it is necessary to think probabilistically.  Going to law school does not guarantee work as a lawyer, but the odds go up considerably. And occupation in one year is not necessarily occupation for life.


Noam Scheiber:

3.) Leichter also makes the following point:

Additionally, over the last seven years the 25th percentile JD advantage worker has typically earned less than the median young college graduate working full-time, which implies that better alternatives to law school were available to graduates in such jobs.

Professor Simkovic:

There is going to be overlap between the very bottom of the distribution of law school graduates in the year when their earnings are at their lowest and college graduates who are closer to the top of the distribution for college graduates—i.e., those who have found full-time work shortly after graduating.

But if the law graduates who are toward the bottom of the distribution of law graduates had not gone to law school and had instead entered the labor market with only a bachelor’s degree, they’d probably be close to the bottom of the distribution of college graduates as well, making even less money, and be even less likely to have found work.

There’s a literature on “over-education” which documents this.  People who end up “over-educated” / “under-employed” are disproportionately those who had lower earnings ability than their peers even before they ended up “over-educated.”  There’s a summary of the literature in this article.

Overlap is normal.  There’s going to be overlap in the distribution of incomes between people living in Queens and people living on the upper east side of Manhattan, even though the people in UES Manhattan typically earn more.

The typical recent college graduate with a liberal arts degree—including those not working full-time—earns around $30,000 straight out of school.  What a lot of people describe as “low” pay for law graduates who are starting out is actually pretty good money compared to what they would likely have made without a law degree, and the boost to earnings typically grows (in dollars) as they gain experience.

You cannot readily compare NALP data to other data sources.  They use different definitions and collect data at a particular point in time when earnings are very low.  NALP does not collect data on college graduates, so Leichter is mixing and matching in ways that are inappropriate.  I’ve mentioned this before.

The labor economics literature routinely finds that the financial benefits of higher education are broad based across occupations.

[i] In 2007, there were 556,000 employed lawyers according to BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, and they accounted for 0.41% of the workforce. In 2014, according to the same data source, there were 603,000 lawyers and they accounted for 0.45% of the workforce. (There was further growth in lawyer employment in 2015). The numbers in 2014 and 2015 are clearly higher than the numbers in 2007. In fact, the numbers were higher than 2007 numbers in every year from 2009 forward.

U.S. Census data (Current Population Survey) paints the same picture. The number of jobs for lawyers grew since 2007, and lawyers constitute a larger share of the workforce since 2007.

The BLS and CPS data give different numbers because BLS only includes those working at businesses as employees, and not those who are owners (i.e., law firm partners) or self-employed.

If you want to focus only on lawyers working full time (i.e., 35 hours per week or more), you’ll get the same picture—there are more lawyers working full time in 2014 than there were in 2007, and among full time workers—1,064,000 full-time lawyers in 2014 versus 964,000 in 2007.  

Lawyers also comprise a larger fraction of the full-time workforce in 2014 than they did in 2007. Lawyers were 0.92% of the full-time workforce in 2014, up from 0.82% in 2007.

Once again, the recent numbers have been higher than 2007 in every year since 2009. 

If you’re looking at “Legal Services” jobs, that’s a mistake because you’ll pick up a decline in jobs for legal secretaries and other low skill support workers, which hides the growth in jobs for lawyers and other highly educated workers.

Noam Scheiber responds:

Overall, your arguments strike me as odd. You don’t sufficiently take into account the extent to which graduating from a weak school in a weak job market, and failing to pass the bar, can be crippling for one’s career prospects.

Professor Simkovic:

Actually we specifically studied the effects of graduating into a weak job market at different points in the distribution, including toward the bottom of the distribution.  Read Timing Law School.  Toward the bottom, (25th percentile) there’s basically no impact on the earnings premium of graduating into a recession—earnings go down equally for law graduates and similar bachelor’s degree holders. Timing Law School is also peer-reviewed.  It has been accepted for publication in The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

While we don't have data specific to Valparaiso, we do have data about many law schools similar to Valparaiso.  If your article were clearly presented as only being about a handful of students at one particular institution, we would be less concerned.  But your article is not presented as being only about Valparaiso, but rather about being about law schools generally, or at least relatively low ranked law schools generally.  Our sample is large and nationally representative.  It is highly unlikely that interviews with 20 alumni of one law school would result in more than anecdotal information, or at best, information about one law school.

Noam Scheiber:

But that was the whole point of my story. There’s been an unprecedented drop in median LSAT scores for students admitted to fourth-tier schools since 2010.

Professor Simkovic:

This is not what I or many other readers understood to be “the whole point” of your article.  You’ve presented your article as representative of law schools generally on your social media pages, and in your fifth paragraph you have quotes about “tens of thousands of recent law school graduates caught up in a broad transformation of the legal profession” and you discuss national demand for lawyers and law graduates.

Our study includes all people with law degrees who the Census samples, not just graduates of ABA approved law schools.  Valparaiso is not the worst law school in the United States.  There are non-ABA approved California schools and schools whose students may have lower LSAT scores and who certainly have lower bar passage rates.  It is true that earnings premiums are lower at 25p than at 75p, and graduates with lower LSAT scores might get a lower premium.   But they’ve got a long way to fall from even the 25th percentile before they start losing money by going to law school, especially with debt forgiveness. Our study does not require people to pass the bar exam.  (After the JD does).

Noam Scheiber:

Those declining LSAT scores are, in turn, pushing us into uncharted territory when it comes to bar passage rates, of which the LSAT is the best single predictor prior to law school. The big decline of median LSAT scores happened in 2013--for Valparaiso, it dropped all the way from 149 to 143 in a single year, a shockingly low number--meaning we won’t know how far bar-passage rates are going to drop till after this year. But 2014 and 2015 herald some ominous results to come.

Professor Simkovic:

Many people who fail the bar exam the first time will eventually pass it.  If you’re interested in this you should consult LSACs national longitudinal bar passage study and its authors, not anti-law school advocacy groups like Law School Transparency who may have misinterpreted it.

FYI, there is a study of long term outcomes for law graduates who never passed the bar (not by me), which finds that after a bumpy few years they eventually end up earning about as much as the 25th percentile of lawyers.  It’s not clear whether they earn little because they failed the bar exam, or whether the same disadvantages that lead them to fail the bar exam lead them to have low earnings.

Noam Scheiber:

Unfortunately, even as this was happening, the debt load of the students most at risk of failing the bar was escalating--and by considerably more than the debt averages I cite in my piece, thanks to the cross-subsidization phenomenon I wrote about (i.e., weak students pay full price; strong students get steep tuition discounts). That seems to foretell some pretty dire financial straits for a lot of people in the near future.

Professor Simkovic:

There are some very inexpensive law schools that have higher default rates than more expensive law schools that serve similar students.  Schools that cost more generally provide a higher quality of education.  The difference in quality can often make up for the difference in costs. 

You seem to be confusing outcomes with value added.  Students with low LSATs typically would also have low scores on other standardized tests, lackluster academic performance and credentials, and limited job prospects outside of law.

Law school can add value and help people have better outcomes than they otherwise would.  But where students come from and what they bring to the table is still going to affect outcomes. 

What matters is the relative improvement, not the end point. 

You seem to be saying that there are some people who managed to graduate with bachelor’s degrees who are just too stupid or from families that are just too poor for law school to help them.  And they don’t deserve a high quality, high cost education, only a cheap and low quality one.

Is that really what you mean to say?

If you’re logically consistent, then you presumably also believe that there are people who are just too sick for it to be worthwhile to give them healthcare, even if that healthcare would likely extend and improve their lives.

If this is actually what you believe, I would like to hear more about how you make the determination of who is deserving and who is not.

If it’s not what you believe, then you need to start recognizing the difference between outcomes and value added, and incorporate that frame of reference into your coverage.

Noam Scheiber:

You tout your estimates of the returns to students at the 25th percentile of the law grad distribution, but they tell us little about this post-2010 cohort of students, because your results stop with people who graduated before the end of the recession. (And even if they did, most recent graduates of fourth-tier schools would likely end up below the 25th percentile in any case.)

Professor Simkovic:

As I’ve said, we have evidence that the earnings premiums are about the same post 2008 as they’ve been in the past, including for more recent graduates.

We don’t have good measures below the 25th percentile, other than student loan default rates, which are typically below the bottom 5% of law school borrowers and these also remain quite low at low ranked schools—and much lower than at most educational institutions.

Noam Scheiber:

You say I stacked the deck against law school by opening my story with John Acosta. But if anything, I’ve chosen someone whose prospects are relatively strong for a graduate of a fourth-tier school.

Professor Simkovic:

Acosta went to community college for two years where his academic performance was not great (according to him), spent an extended period in the army and working as a policeman, then finished his bachelor’s degree in his 30s.  Most people who go to law school finish a bachelor’s degree in 4 to 5 years, not 10 to 15.  Valparaiso was the only law school that accepted Acosta unconditionally, although he applied to several.  He might be doing well now, but going in the door, he must have looked like a pretty risky student. 

If Valparaiso had applied the kind of cutoffs you seem to want, people like him might not have been admitted.

Is that what you want?

Noam Scheiber:

As I say in the piece, he passed the bar on his first try. He persuaded a longtime prosecutor to join him in opening a firm.

Professor Simkovic:

Which no one would have known would happen at the time he applied to law school. 

Most of their students pass on the first try, so that’s not “better than most”; it’s about average.

Noam Scheiber:

And having been a cop for over a decade, he has some very marketable skills to offer clients. Of the 15 to 20 Valparaiso students or recent alumni that I interviewed, he was better situated than at least half. Four of the other people I include in my story--Daria Anderson, Sarah Tapia, Ethan Legg, and Chris Freiberg--are probably in a tougher situation than Mr. Acosta.

Professor Simkovic:

Interesting.  How did you select the people you chose to interview, and how did you choose Valparaiso as the law school you would focus on?  Most of their students passed the bar exam on the first try, and most seem to be employed in at least some capacity.

How much did you inquire about students’ backgrounds before they went to law school and whether they had better alternatives lined up?

Noam Scheiber:

But you need not take my word for any of this. The most compelling evidence that many, many recent Valparaiso grads have not been well-served by their law school experience is the admission by their own faculty and administrators that this is the case. Most of the faculty and administrators I spoke either intimated or told me outright that the school erred in admitting too many marginal students over the past five years. Bruce Berner, a recent head of the admissions committee there, told me, “If we could go back, I think we should have erred a little more on the side of turning people down.”

Or as the dean, Andrea Lyon, put it: “I don’t think it’s moral to take someone’s money who can’t make it. It’s just wrong.”

Professor Simkovic:


There’s a pretty big gap between “maybe we should have admitted a few less students with low LSAT scores” and “our law school is making many or even most of its students worse off and the world would be a better place if we went out of business.”

I believe that what the Valparaiso dean meant was that Valparaiso is not accepting students that it believes “can’t make it” because to do so would be morally wrong.  The quote does not seem to be an admission that Valparaiso behaved immorally in its admissions policies or that it deserves to be castigated, but rather an explanation of the painful sacrifices they have made terminating a large share of their faculty.  (We can ask the dean if you want).

You seem to think that Valparaiso should shut down.  (You described shrinking the faculty by 50 percent as “rather pedestrian” and asked “whether they should exist at all.”)  As far as I can tell, the faculty and the dean and most of the alumni disagree with your assessment that Valparaiso should cease to exist. 

Sometimes when journalists are in a rush or are over-confident, they decide the story they want to tell and then search for sources that will support that story while overlooking contradictory evidence.  Sometimes they hear what they want to hear instead of what people are actually saying.  Sometimes they judge sources by whether they support the story rather than by whether they are rigorous and reliable.  Sometimes they don’t even realize that’s what they are doing until someone points it out after the fact. 

We could continue to explore whether these common problems have affected your story from Friday.

But I appreciate you taking the time to respond to me, and my goal in life is not to embarrass you or the New York Times or accuse you of wrongdoing.  I’m doing this because The New York Times is an important newspaper, you are an important journalist, and the public deserves more accurate information. 

Read this over carefully.  Read my last two communications carefully.  Read the materials I referenced.  If you want, talk to professional labor economists who do empirical work in an economics department or a business school and who have no dog in the law school fight.  

Then think about whether this is the right time in the conversation for the New York Times to honor its promise to its readers to share only the highest quality information and—when it does not live up to that promise—to fully correct the record. 

Not on a Facebook page where no one will see it.  In the New York Times itself, with the same prominence as the original factually incorrect story.  Davidoff’s story is great, but it will not have the same impact as an official correction directly from you and your editors.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Law in Cyberspace, Legal Profession, Of Academic Interest, Science, Weblogs | Permalink