Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Law professor pay plummeted over 20 percent this decade amid declining enrollments (Michael Simkovic) (UPDATED)

Nationally, pay for law professors has plummeted by more than 20 percent in real terms since 2013 according to data from the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Average (mean) compensation fell from a peak of $179,000 in 2013 to $136,000 by 2022*—a drop of 24 percent.  The decline is both economically and statistically significant.  (That is, it exceeds the margin of error due to statistical sampling).  Real pay was 31 percent higher in 2013 compared to 2022.  Half of the drop (12%) occurred in the last two years.


Compensation of Law Professors has declined 24 percent since 2013; employment stagnated


Compensation                                                                                    Total Employment

2022 USD



Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics; Social Security Administration, Average Wage Index.

Real compensation for law professors declined across the distribution, but the pay cut was most severe for the lowest paid faculty members—presumably those at lower ranked and more leanly funded institutions, junior faculty members, clinicians and teaching fellows.  There was a 34 percent decline at the 25th percentile, 23 percent decline at the median, and a 26 percent decline at the 75th percentile.   The 75th percentile would roughly correspond to law school number 50 out of 200, although it refers to the 75th percentile of law professors rather than law schools.  Law professors in the Department of Labor data include non-tenure track faculty, and may include clinical faculty if they are not classified by their institutions as "lawyers."

Law Professor Compensation


Real 2022 USD



25th Percentile

50th Percentile

75th Percentile













































Change since 2013




During the same time period, total employment of law professors has stagnated.  The Department of Labor Estimates that 14,500 law professors were employed at colleges, universities and professional schools in 2013.  Nearly the same number, 14,200, were employed in 2022.  

Because the higher education workforce has grown, law professor total employment declined from 0.53 percent of the industry in 2017 to 0.47 percent in 2022—a drop of 13 percent relative to colleges, universities and professional school employment.  Relative to the entire U.S. workforce, law professors have fallen from 0.01126 percent to 0.0096 percent in 2022--a decline of 17.4 percent.  During the same period lawyers have grown as a share the workforce and their compensation has generally kept up with inflation after accounting for demographic changes.  Lawyer pay is higher than law professor pay on average, and at every point in the distribution, according to BLS OES data, which excludes law firm partners.

Most law professors attended the top 6 law schools, and the average professor reports working 61 hours per week.  Graduates of top law schools working in elite law firms currently earn around $450,000 per year within 5 years of graduation, roughly 3.2 times the average law professor salary.   Hours of many mid-level law firm associates appear to be similar to those self reported by professors, with many law firms offering work-from home options.   

Law school applicants and enrollment peaked around 2010, but have been in long term decline according to data from LSAC.  In 2004, 105,000 prospective JD's applied to law school. By 2010, it was 91,000, and by 2016 it had fallen to 57,000.  As of 2022, applicants recovered only slightly to 64,000, still down 42 percent since 2010.

Declining student interest may be due to a widespread perception among prospective students that law schools have become excessively political and distracted from their core mission, and related concerns that law schools are not doing enough to help their students prepare for the rigors of work as professionals in the private sector.****  Declining interest in law schools—and a shift toward other graduate degrees—corresponds with a shift among undergraduates toward majors that focus on teaching marketable skills and offer better employment prospects, and away from majors associated with political indoctrination, lower pay, and higher risks of underemployment. 

In the last five years, applications to law school from white men, and possibly to a lesser extent, white women, have fallen the most, according to LSAC data (see here and here), while applicants from other groups have not made up the difference. In addition, survey data from Pew shows that conservatives used to have a mostly positive view of higher education, but their views have turned increasingly negative in recent years. 

Male applications to law school plummeted by 10% in the last 5 years according to LSAC data, during a time period when the number of male college graduates between the ages of 21 to 30 increased by 12% according to Census data.  Male enrollment in law school has been in precipitous decline since 2010, falling by 34 percent even as, according to Census data, the number of male college graduates age 21 to 30 has grown by 36 percent.  The number of new bachelor's degrees conferred on men by U.S. institutions annually grew by 15% during this time period according DOE data.  Thus, law schools are attracting fewer applicants even though the demographic headwinds are favorable.  This indicates that law school has become less attractive over time to prospective students, at least compared to other options.

Law School Enrollment by Gender: 1970 - 2021

Declining male enrollment in law school

Source: American Bar Association.

Meanwhile, as faculty meetings have become increasingly tense, politicized, and emotional, many professors have become reluctant to question administrative priorities for fear of reprisals.   

Nevertheless, at schools where faculty can agree on the importance of improving basic conditions, prospective deans  will be expected to articulate plans for growing revenue, cutting unnecessary costs, increasing faculty compensation, improving students' employment readiness, and helping to address housing affordability challenges for faculty, staff and students.  Relative to housing prices, on average law professor compensation declined by 40 percent since 2013.

* Compensation data in this article are all adjusted for inflation to 2022 dollars using the Social Security Administration’s Average Wage Index, which is used to adjust social security benefits to keep up with broader changes in wages and the cost of living. 

Law professor compensation has also declined in real terms using either the Consumer Price Index (17 percent decline from peak) or the Case Shiller National Housing Price Index (40 percent decline from peak) for inflation adjustment purposes.  Law Professors here refers to “Law Teachers, Post-Secondary” who work at “Colleges, Universities and Professional Schools” in the OES database.

** American Association of Law Schools chief executive compensation has declined in real terms by around 16 percent from 2013 to 2022.*  Maintaining this level of executive compensation amid declining student interest in law school has required the AALS to increase spending on executive compensation from 14.8 to nearly 18 percent of revenue.  By contrast, average compensation of chief executives at colleges and universities has increased by almost 20 percent in real term, according to the same Department of Labor data. Actual compensation may be higher due to top coding and changes in fringe benefits.

**** Concerns have also been expressed in the press—and by the Supreme Court, members of Congress, and several candidates running for the Presidency of the United States—that university leaders encourage discrimination against Asians, Jews, Christians, whites, political conservatives, and/or men.  Prominent law school leaders have publicly acknowledged a long and ongoing history of race and sex-based discrimination to promote demographic diversity.  Many have pledged to continue these efforts, notwithstanding substantial litigation (and therefore financial) risk. 

In 2021, within the United States, women earned 58 percent of new bachelor's degrees, 62 percent of new masters degrees, and 54 percent of PhDs and professional degrees according to department of education data. According to DOE data, female educational attainment surpassed male educational attainment for bachelor's and masters degrees starting in the early to mid 1980s, and for PhD and Professional degrees starting around 2005, with the gap in women's favor growing over time. Census data--which includes those who earned degrees outside of the United States, suggests numbers somewhat closer to gender parity.

Women live 6 years longer than men, are 23 times less likely to be killed by the police (gender differences in police killings are much larger than racial differences), 13 times less likely to be imprisoned, 2.6 times less likely to be homeless, receive lighter jail sentences for similar crimes, are four times less likely to commit suicide, and constitute a majority of voters in at least 48 out of 50 states, depending on the year. 

At law firms, earnings are close to equal for male and female lawyers after controlling for billable hours and revenue generation.  However, some corporate clients have explicit policies to limit billable hours given to straight white men.



UPDATE October 18, 2023 1:15 pm EST:  

Could changing composition of law professors explain the decline?  Probably not.

A reader asked an excellent question--could the decline in real law professor pay be due to a change in the composition of law professors?  

For example, is it possible that many older and higher paid law professors retired at the same time across law schools, while younger and therefore less expensive professors took their place, thereby causing the average to decline?  

The available data suggests that this is unlikely to explain much of the decline in real pay for law professors. 

BLS OES does not have publicly available data on age or seniority of workers.  However, the Census Bureau's ACS does have such data.  The ACS doesn't have a specific category for law professors, so I checked the category for professors, limited it to those with professional degrees who work in colleges or universities or professional schools (these institutions are lumped into one category in ACS), and looked at changes in average age.  There's no decline in the average age of professors with professional degrees during the relevant time period, whether I look at everyone or only those who worked at least 35 hours per week.

The analysis is below.

Average age of postsecondary teachers with professional degrees at colleges and universities 2001-2021

Download Average age of postsecondary teachers with professional degrees working 35+ hours at colleges and universities 2001-2021

In addition, SALT has data from selected institutions broken down by seniority level.  The most recent SALT data available is from 2020, although BLS shows an additional 12% decline in real pay from 2020 to 2022.  SALT data is not inflation adjusted, it is nominal.   To keep up with the Social Security Average Wage Index, from 2012 to 2020, nominal pay would need to go up by 26 percent. A 26 percent nominal increase is the same thing as a zero percent real change in compensation.

From casually glancing at the data (which is published in PDF format rather than in excel or CSV), it seems that all or almost all of the law schools and all or almost all of the seniority levels of faculty within those schools reported in SALT show less than a 26 percent nominal increase in pay (especially if we include summer stipends).   Real pay has gone down substantially after controlling for seniority level and institution.  

Another version of this question is whether the composition of "law professors" in the BLS might be changing because academic support staff are being categorized as "law professors" and schools have hired more of these sorts of folks to maintain or improve bar passage rates as schools are taking in students with greater need for assistance and greater risk of not passing.  There probably has been an increase in clinical instructors, but presumably that should show up as an increase in the overall number of professors, not as a reduction in doctrinal faculty and an increase in clinicians that cancel each other out leaving head-counts flat.   There is also some question about whether clinical instructors should be categorized in the BLS OES as law teachers or as lawyers, since they are licensed attorneys engaged in the practice of law and representing clients.

Miscategorization of support staff seems unlikely as an explanation of declining law professor pay for several additional reasons, besides SALT data matching up with the BLS data.  First, BLS OES has many detailed occupational categories which would be more appropriate for support staff than the category of law professor.  BLS OES also has an occupational dictionary which explains what each job is, what tasks people in the job perform, etc.  The entry for law professors is here.

Other categories that would be more appropriate for support staff include:

  • Tutors
  • Instructional Coordinators
  • Social and Human Service Assistants
  • Library Science Teachers, Postsecondary
  • Training and Development Specialists
  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
  • Counselors, All Other
  • Computer User Support Specialists
  • Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English as a Second Language Instructors
  • Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English as a Second Language Instructors
  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers
  • Legal Secretaries and Administrative Assistants
  • Rehabilitation Counselors
  • Educational Instruction and Library Workers, All Other
  • Psychiatric Aides
  • Education administrators, Post secondary.
  • Managers, All Other
  • Postsecondary Teachers, All Other
  • School Psychologists
  • Clinical and Counseling Psychologists
  • Education teachers, post secondary

In addition, the number of law teachers has remained flat, while the number of support staff working in higher education has increased, suggesting that these individuals are being appropriately categorized.

The data may include some individuals who teach at 4 year programs in 

UPDATE October 22, 2023:  This article has been corrected to reflect a 24 percent decline in real law professor pay over the decade rather than a 31 percent decline.  Pay was 31 percent higher in 2013 than in 2022 (measured against the lower 2022 base); however, this corresponds to a 24 percent reduction in pay measured against the higher 2013 base.  Restoring faculty to 2013 levels of real pay would require a 31 percent increase from 2022 levels of pay, plus an increase for whatever additional inflation occurred in 2023.


UPDATE October 27, 2023:  A supplementary analysis of SALT data--which includes only tenure track doctrinal faculty and breaks faculty down by seniority level--finds a nearly identical drop in real pay across seniority levels from 2013-2020 as the BLS data.  2020 is the most recent year available in the SALT data.

The analysis in this article has now been covered by Above the Law, the ABA Journal, and Law360.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink