Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Should law schools be penalized for admitting students from wealthy families who are not motivated to work? (Michael Simkovic)

Scott F. Norberg argues for a law school accreditation standard tied to student employment outcomes.  The proposal is interesting, and may have some advantages over a standard tied to bar passage rates, for example because it does not give state bars--who can make the bar exam more or less challenging and have incentives to strengthen barriers to entry--excessive control over access to legal education. However, there are several potential concerns. 

Employment is systematically higher among certain demographic groups across education levels for reasons that have little to do with value added by law school.  An employment-outcomes based standard could encourage law schools to focus on admitting groups with higher expected employment. 

For example, men tend to have higher labor force participation rates and employment rates than women.  Although highly educated men and women are more likely to be employed than their less educated same-sex peers, even among professional degree holders there is a sex gap, with young women (age 25-35) nearly twice as likely as young men of the same age and education level to not be in the workforce and to not be seeking employment, according to the American Community Survey.  Data from the 2001-2017 ACS appears below for professionals age 25-35 broken down by sex.  "Unemployed" means not working and seeking employment; "not in labor force" means not working and not currently seeking employment.  Note that employment here means any employment, not just employment in a full time job or in a job that is closely related to one's degree.


Cells contain:
-Column percent
-Weighted N
empstat 1: Employed 90.6
2: Unemployed 2.8
3: Not in labor force 6.6
Color coding: <-2.0 <-1.0 <0.0 >0.0 >1.0 >2.0 Z
N in each cell: Smaller than expected Larger than expected


Highly educated young women who are not seeking work are typically prosperous.  They have average family incomes in excess of six figures--and indeed substantially higher than their employed or unemployed and seeking female peers--according to ACS.  Dollar figures here from 2001-2017 have not been adjusted for inflation and would be higher if adjusted.


chart illustrating table


High family incomes of well-educated women who are not seeking work persist when we include women older than age 35.


chart illustrating table


Young men with professional degrees who are not working and not seeking work tend to have even higher family incomes than women who are not working and not seeking work.


chart illustrating table


Increased wealth reduces propensity to work  (see also here). Law schools probably should not be penalized for admitting students from wealthy families who are not highly motivated to practice law or pursue other employment.  It is probably better for society if people who control a great deal of resources are well-educated rather than ignorant. 

There may also be predictable variations in employment by race, college major, age, and other characteristics which apply across education levels.  It is reasonable to ask law schools to improve incomes for members of different demographic groups compared to a lower level of education for members of those same demographic groups. It is not reasonable to expect law schools to raise everyone to the same level, regardless of their starting position.

Employment rates for recent college and law graduates could also vary in a recession or boom.  In a bad enough and persistent enough recession, law schools which improve college graduates prospects for employment, especially those with humanities degrees, might fall below any fixed threshold. Norberg somewhat mitigates that concern by proposing a multi-year standard, but does not eliminate it.

It may be preferable to benchmark the standard to some broader index of employment rates outside of law, such as the civilian employment population ratio for those in their mid 20s, and to use standard census definitions of employment.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic, Legal Profession, Weblogs | Permalink