Law School and Cash Crunches

In The Economic Value of a Law Degree: Correcting Misconceptions, Michael Simkovic responds to critics and commentaries. One of his (gentler) responses is directed here:

Michael Froomkin wonders if law degree holders will experience a cash crunch early in their careers when their incomes are lower and debt levels are higher. 

It is unlikely that a debt financed law degree would create a cash crunch.  Young bachelor’s degree holders also have lower incomes early in their careers.  The earnings premium associated with the law degree will typically exceed required debt service payments on law school debt, particularly in light of the availability of extended repayment, deferment, forbearance, and income based repayment plans.  Graduate degrees can readily be financed entirely with federal student loans.

The costs of delayed repayment (i.e., higher interest) are already taken into account in our present value calculation, because we discount back at the weighted average interest rate on law school debt.  We’re pretty conservative in this respect: we ignore the (likely) possibility that students will prepay their highest interest rate debts first.  Indeed, After the JD II found evidence of rapid pre-payment of law school debt.

Our results suggest that most young law degree holders most of the time likely have more positive cash flow—even after debt service payments—than they would likely have had with only a bachelor’s degree.

Because the economic value of a given level of education can generally be maximized by completing that level of education early—and thereby maximizing the number of years of subsequent work with the benefit of higher wages from the education earnings premium—delaying graduate school to try to time the market is a high-cost strategy. And timing the market three or four years in advance is difficult.

I think we are talking past each other here in two ways. First, Simkovic largely relies on aggregate data; I was talking about a specific sub-class: people with (1) high debt, (2) higher-than-average average interest rates, who find themselves (3) in low percentiles in relative earnings.

Second, I would include as problem cases many of those people who are forced to go into loan deferral. That will in the long run increase their interest expense; it means some predictions they made regarding debt service may turn out to be unduly optimistic.

It doesn’t really matter to me that the paper already took account of increased interest payment due to deferral in computing net present value because the paper’s calculation is a priori and my narrative is post hoc; we’re not talking about the same thing. The paper is asking whether a law degree tends to have a positive net present value at graduation, and finds it does even at the 25th percentile. I’m discussing the issue from the post hoc perspective of a subset of students. Thus, I am not disputing the claim that “[t]he earnings premium associated with the law degree will typically exceed required debt service payments on law school debt” (emphasis added) but rather pointing out that there may be a non-trivial number of so-called non-typical cases. This observation is not negated by Simkovic’s reply that, “most young law degree holders most of the time likely have more positive cash flow—even after debt service payments—than they would likely have had with only a bachelor’s degree” (emphasis added). On the contrary, the two claims seem to me to be entirely congruent: the JD has tended to be an economic win. But not for everyone.

Simkovic offers a chart in support of his assertion that cash flow is not much of an issue. Again, his assertion may work for the majority and may work at the median, but as this very chart shows, there’s a group – 10%? 15%? for whom things are not so great:

In terms of the over-all viability of the law school enterprise these indeed are fairly reassuring charts. But note that the left chart is for the median student. [UPDATE: Actually that chart is for the median student with debt, making it even more reassuring.] When discussing cash flow problems, I’m not primarily talking about the median student. I’m talking about the appreciable minority of people who are, assuming a normal distribution, about a standard deviation below the mean. This group likely substantially includes the 5+% with more than $100,000 still owning seven years post-graduation. They are not typical, but nor are they so rare that we should ignore their existence.

My point was, and remains, that even if we take on board the valuable insight from “The Economic Value of a Law Degree” — that most JDs have made economic sense for most recipients in recent history, and that there are credible grounds to believe this trend may continue — that doesn’t mean prospective students should not ask themselves hard questions about what their JD will be mean given their personal circumstances. For an appreciable minority — circa 10% even? — and especially those borrowing to pay full tuition at certain private T4 law schools on top of other debt, it is likely to be a bad bet.

I am tentatively persuaded that law school is a good lifetime economic bet for most students, barring a structural shift in service provision unique to lawyers. There is, to my eye, more evidence for the proposition that there is a shift than there is for the proposition that shift is unique to legal services. Thus, we might expect some sort of JD earnings premium to persist. If so, a JD at even a middle-ranked law school will be a good lifetime economic bet for most people, save for a small group disproportionately composed of those who carry the highest debt at graduation and who also enjoy (suffer) the least remunerative outcomes.

Note, however, how far we have gotten: a ‘good lifetime economic bet’ is a long way from the gravy train with giant starting salaries that too many students who matriculated only a few years ago routinely seemed to expect was practically their due. Even if the over-enthusiastic critiques of the value of a JD substantially corrected by ‘The Economic Value of a Law Degree’ may have been shown to reflect serious sampling bias, the entire debate reminds us how important it is to approach a legal career, or any career, with realistic expectations.

I invite Simkovic & McIntyre to include a 10th and a 5th percentile in their various tables if possible. It might help all this become clearer if we were working from more common ground.

[UPDATE: I should maybe also add that when I think of a 'cash flow problem' I don't just mean the sort that drive people to bankruptcy, but the sort that put them back in their parents' basements. Thus there can be people with severe cash flow problems in the sense I mean it while an economist would still find there is a positive cash flow since due to severe economies they are in fact earning more than enough to cover their debts.]

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9 Responses to Law School and Cash Crunches

  1. Barry says:

    “…and that there are credible grounds to believe this trend may continue…”

    I’d love to see such credible grounds.

    For example, S&M claim that there are cyclic patterns to employability, and that we are simply in a down spot in the cycle. If so, they should have no problem showing data that shows a four-year period with grad:job ratios[1] and similar salary statistics[2].

    [1] Real ones, not stuff like ‘96% employed’.
    [2] Statistics which count all jobs, not just the better ones.

    • The claim is that the *premium* will last (over no-JD), not that current salary levels will last. That is, to me, a plausible claim unless you think lawyers are going to get slammed worse than other professionals. That’s possible, but I think it is not obvious. I think that this recession is very very bad, and people familiar with the lawyer part of it are just not as familiar with how awful it also has been for other people.

      • Barry says:

        Good point. However, the grads:jobs/salaries figures are horrible. Joe/Josephine BA might have problems with jobs and salaries, but Mark/Mary JD is carrying a massively higher level of debt (say, $100K-250K vs ~$20K or so). In addition, the pre-partner purge rates seems to be going up quite a bit, meaning that a higher percentage of JD’s will hit a major career setback in their thirties than before. The partner purge rate seems to be high, which suggests that mid- and late-career attrition will be higher.

        Another way to put it is – would you rate the lawyer:white collar Master’s degree advantage to be the same as it was in the 80’s, or higher? It’s got to be a lot higher, considering that the up-front costs are much higher.

        • Barry says:

          BTW, the biggest two things might be AI and offshoring, but they’ll hit everybody (the difference might be that law is juuuuuuust being impacted by AI, and hasn’t been hit yet by offshoring).

      • Barry says:

        ” That is, to me, a plausible claim unless you think lawyers are going to get slammed worse than other professionals. ”

        That’s where I wonder about the ‘cyclic’ claim by S&M. They should be able to point to some times (such as the early 1980’s) when things were just as bad. I have a feeling that there are large differences which weren’t there before: more law schools, larger classes, far higher tuition, and a decade or two of overproduction glutting the market.

        • Barry says:

          Another way to put it:

          Take a random person with a not-particularly employable BA degree. In a few years, they’ll probably have *some* sort of job leading to a career (barring the economy tanking, which will affect law grads as well). When they do get into some sort of job, they’ll have say $20K in student debt to deal with.

          A random person with a JD (excluding people from a T14) will have ~50% chance of not having a lawyer’s job at nine months. This means that employers have skipped them over, and are not looking at next year’s new grads. They don’t have the skills to start a legal business, and small firms don’t have the resources to train them, nor can they pay worth anything.

          This puts them into the same boat as the random BA, except that (a) the JD is carrying from 5x to 10x the debt and (b) has the stigma of having obtained a three-year professional degree, but couldn’t get a job in their field.

          • Thing is, the numbers may not be as bad as you think. Let’s look at UM, a middle-of-the-pack school according to US News. Our latest data for the class of 2011, based on on a 95.8% response rate, shows 85.4% employed. Of the entire class, 75.9% had a JD required job, another 8.9 had “JD advantage” jobs. The law school spins this as 88.9% of all grads known to be working or in joint degree or graduate law programs. No matter how you spin it, it’s not wonderful, but it’s a whole lot better than 50% unemployed.

            Either the national numbers are weighed down by the grads of some law schools with appalling employment rates or we are doing much, much better than our peers.

            • Barry says:

              Which says that U Miami is doing surprisingly well. [note - that page isamp g the worst I have ever seen, in 20 years as a statistician. Fire that USA Today alum you have designing it!] What concerns me are the large number of of grads in 2-10 person firms. Also, what is the debt load carried? For $60k salaries, some debt necessary, but not too much.

              • The small firm thing is a long-running peculiarity of the Miami market. It has always been thus, although I don’t know why.

                As regards the graphics, I actually think they are more likely to communicate to the audience that most needs to know this stuff; I think they’re not just appropriate but well suited to task.

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