Education to What End?

Lawyer Dan Slater takes to the pages of the New York Times to whine that lawyers don’t make enough money because there are just too many lawyers:

“If you counted on starting at $160,000 per year, then you’re in for a huge disappointment,” said Bryant Garth, the dean at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, where enrollment is up 11 percent. He disagrees with Miami’s approach and believes that trying to shrink class size amounts to panicking. “I insist law is still a good career,” he said. “Students may just have to make it in a more entrepreneurial fashion.”

Either way, the burden falls ultimately to aspiring legal eagles to reconsider motivations rather than borrow money on the expectation that they’ll make fat salaries, pay off debt in short order and win that express ticket to an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Because those days, grand as they might have been, are gone.

But will next year’s round of applicants heed the signals? Or, like Gatsby’s revelers, will they simply push on at an ever greater clip, boats against the current, toward that green light in the ivory tower and the promising future that, quite literally, recedes before them? After all, there will always be the possibility, however faint, of Big Law money and white-shoe prestige — those powerful tonics for every new batch of wandering liberal arts graduates.

In fairness Mr. Slater is drawing attention to the practices of a single law school. However, I don’t think it’s unfair to generalize from that.

Over the period of the last forty years I’ve heard complaints from members of one profession or other that somebody else was cutting into their earnings. Lawyers complained about insurance salesmen and realtors. Physicians complained about dentists. Engineers complained about technicians. As I see it this article is just struggling established lawyers complaining about newly-minted lawyers.

A few facts and figures may be in order. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median starting salary of lawyers is $60,000. Those working for private law firms will start at $85,000 but those new associates will work 200 hours a month for years at something like that wage. If they become partners they’ll see some opportunity for higher incomes.

However, government at all levels is by far the greatest employer of lawyers and lawyers working for the government make a lot less than lawyers in private practice. Many, many of those bright, shiny new young attorneys will never see the big bucks.

Some perspective on starting salaries in the professions might be interesting. Again, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median salary for physicians starting out in practice is roughtly $160,000, the highest of the professions. The starting salary for PhD engineers (trying to compare apples to apples) is roughly $75,000.

It may be hard to credit but lawyers have always had the lowest median starting salary among the professions. Forty years ago the medians were $10,000 for lawyers, $12,000 for physicians, and $14,000 for engineers. That was balanced somewhat by the practice of law having the greatest potential for salary growth among the professions.

What changed? Basically, Medicare. The increased demand for physicians’ services has increased physicians’ incomes.

Prospects for MBA’s aren’t particularly bright, either, and, unless you believe that the financial sector will return to the heights it’s enjoyed for the last couple of decades (I don’t), are likely to stay that way.

I don’t have a ready solution to the problems for the economy that I see. I’m hearing a lot, again, that education is the key to our economic future. If that were the case you wouldn’t think that lawyers would be complaining that the law schools need to graduate fewer lawyers. However, I agree with the author of the article: I think that limiting entry is one of the keys to boosting wages in the professions. I just don’t see any way to reconcile that with the notion that we should be educating more people for jobs that don’t exist.

3 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m not sure that the median salary and benefits for government lawyers isn’t higher than private lawyers these days. Illinois state government lawyers are unionized for one thing.

  • Well, that’s what the BLS says.

    Pay for starting attorneys in the private sector is no bed of roses, either, at least not on an hourly basis.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Sorry, didn’t see the link. State lawyers tell me that their starting salarys are lower, but they receive steep pay increases annually for the first six years or so that put them ahead. Then it’s back to 1-3% annual pay increases, from which they will fall behind the more successful private practice attorneys. But the real difference are the benefits: state-funded life, health, vision and dental insurance; dependent care; overtime restrictions (or time-and-a-half pay), two-to-five weeks of vacation, and the ability to retire at the age of 57 1/2 at 80% of salary. And probably effectively immune from firing.

    Since I can look up their salaries on-line (thanks Post-Dispatch!), I know they are comfortably in the upper-middle class, but I live in a pretty affordable area. YMMV. And the salaries probably wouldn’t justify six figures of student loan debt.

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