More About Starting Salaries

The comments to University of Miami Law Tops Florida Bar Pass devolved into a discussion of the employment prospects of our graduates.

In the course of that discussion, questions were raised about the data the law school publishes in its Viewbook. In particular, commentators questioned the claim made there that the average starting salary for UM grads who work in firms is over $100,000. I wondered about that myself, as the breakout data later on the same page seemed to suggest something lower.

Could the law school have made a (convenient) error in the viewbook?

I took my concerns to the law school administration, who responded by giving me a full data dump and a full explanation. I don't have the energy to try to type in all the data, so I'll just try a simplified version of the explanation. [If you really have to have more, or have further questions, the Dean of Career Development, Marcy Cox, mcox@law.miami.edu (305-284-2668), says she's happy to address them.]

According to Career Development Office, the reason why the both $104,500 number and the more detailed but somewhat different pie charts accompanying it are accurate has to do with response rates, differing data sets, and national reporting standards.

Not everyone who responded to the law school's survey about what they were doing immediately after graduation chose to disclose their salary. Thus, the charts about firm size, for example, are based on a bigger data pool than the salary number. In 2007 we had 378 JDs. Of that group, 346 had replied to our survey at the time the Viewbook was produced. Of that 346, however, not all worked for firms — and of the group that worked for firms only about 46% gave us salary data. So the average salary number of $104,500 is based on the data provided by that 46%.

Since firm size and starting salary are related, you might reasonably object — as I did — that it would be more reasonable to pro-rate the responses of the people who gave salary data on the assumption that the people who didn't fill in that part of the survey earned similar amounts by comparable firm size. And I still think there's something to that. But I'm told by the Career Office — and I believe them — that the average salary data is presented the way it is because that's how all law schools do it and the goal is to provide prospective students with numbers that can fairly be compared to what is provided by other law schools.

The Career Development Office avers that it collects the data and reports it in accordance with ABA and NALP guidelines, using the same methods that every other accredited law school in the country uses. Were the law school to do something else, the administration notes, it would no longer be reporting to students in the way it reports to the ABA and NALP. That would mean our data would have an asterisk. And even if we were doing it in order to provide better data the inevitable conclusion that most people would draw is that we were trying to hide something. So the Catch-22 is that we have to do it this way, possibly sacrificing some statistical excellence and even accuracy, or else we'll look like we're engaged in some sort of cover-up. And, of course, in addition to having an asterisk, we'd be harming our competitive position since we'd have gone to some trouble to calculate and report a lower number which would harm marketing and recruiting.

It seems to me that UM is between a rock and a hard place here. I would prefer that we use the best statistical techniques, pro-rate the data we have, and let the chips fall where they may. Following the national standards will, I believe, tend to cause this (and apparently almost every other) law school to report a number as “average” that is in fact likely to be higher than the reality. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, what UM — following a methodology its competitors use — reports as an “average” salary for graduates in firms, is most likely closer to what someone in the 75th percentile of the salary distribution gets. And given the law firm salary structure is now a notoriously double-humped curve (see Starting Salaries For Law Students are BiModal — If Not Bipolar for more details), this is a fairly severe truth-in-advertising problem.

Students nationally have some right to be upset. On the other hand, it seems pretty hard to ask UM to engage in unilateral disarmament in the recruitment wars: this is a job for the ABA or the AALS to resolve on a national level. (It also means that students thinking about a law career and hoping for the giant salaries offered by the biggest firms should really understand what that double-humped curve means to their prospects.)

Meanwhile, however, I've asked the Career Development Office to include something in the next edition of the Viewbook that makes clearer the relationship between the various data sets it uses. They've agreed in principle, and we'll thrash out some language when time comes to do the next edition.

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3 Responses to More About Starting Salaries

  1. matt says:

    Since I’m not in any way connected to U.M. or even a law student any more I don’t have a dog in this fight at all but wanted to say that this seems like a real service on your part, Michael. I’d agree that it doesn’t make sense for Miami to change unilaterally, but it might be worth putting notice on the figures that they are based on a partial return of information and may not represent every situation.

  2. Thanks says:

    Much thanks from a former UM student for this. While I’m very happy with where I am now and enjoyed my time at UM Law, I do admit that I would have given some serious thought to going elsewhere if the reported numbers were more accurately reported.

  3. michael says:

    But if the other places’ numbers are (by and large) equally cooked…. Seem,s to me this speaks most clearly to the law school / no law school choice than which?

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