Supply and Demand

by Dave Schuler on May 13, 2014

Two young lawyers’ complaints that they’re not earning enough as Massachusetts public prosecutors do not evoke a lot of sympathy from me:

I graduated from Boston College Law School in 2007. After six and a half years as a public defender, my salary is roughly $53,600 a year. I, like my colleagues, realize many people in Massachusetts are paid less than public defenders. Every single day I work with poor people who don’t have a dime to their name. And I know many people struggle, stay in the middle class, with less than my salary. But $53,600 a year is far too low of a salary to allow me to stay with CPCS. I have over $120,000 in student loans. I have a 2003 Toyota Corolla with 128,000 miles on it. I live in a modest apartment that I share, perhaps tellingly, with another public defender from my office just to make the ends meet. I had a part-time job for five years as a public defender selling wine and liquor at a wine shop until about a year ago when I really had to leave because my social life was nonexistent and I really needed extra time to work on my cases. I live no better than I did when I was a first-year law student at BC. In fact, I probably live less well. I have no savings. I can’t save anything for retirement, and there is no end in sight.

A dozen or more years ago I ran into a classmate in, of all places, a grocery store in San Diego. At that point he was working as a public prosecutor for the county and complained that he wasn’t being paid enough and that was during an historic boom. The reality is that public prosecutors have never been well-paid.

It’s a simple case of supply and demand. Let’s go back to the case of Massachusetts. Massachusetts has the second highest ratio of lawyers to population of any state in the Union (only New York has more).

Add to that the reality that unemployment of newly graduated lawyers is at historic levels.

Finally, incomes among lawyers occur in a bimodal distribution, i.e. they’re not statistically normal. Notions like “average” or “median” don’t mean much when it comes to lawyers. A bimodal distribution has two humps like a camel rather than the familiar normal distribution. Why is that? Lawyers who work for big law firms make big wages. They’re also graduates of a handful of law schools. Lawyers who don’t work for big law firms earn considerably less and lawyers who work for the government even less than that. And the big law firms aren’t hiring the armies of associates they used to, mostly through a combination of automation and offshoring.

The grads of top law schools now compete with grads of lesser law schools who in turn are pushed out of jobs in law altogether.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

... May 13, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Was at a party last week where I heard one middle-aged lawyer complaining to another about all the new lawyers willing to work 80 hours or more a week for $25,000 a year. Apparently it’s dragging wages down. Didn’t feel any sympathy whatsoever, though I kept it to myself.

... May 13, 2014 at 1:18 pm

I’m also wondering how many lawyers have ever taken an economics course.

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm

Historically, a lot of public defender/prosecutor jobs were held by recent graduates seeking to obtain trial experience they were unlikely to obtain elsewhere, and they often moved on after awhile, ideally with the value added of trial experience. The salaries reflected a high-turnover, younger professional, who generally was expected to work their butts off even [dare I say it] after the little hand hits five.

To cut to the point, I doubt these salaries are out-of-line with historic norms. I’ve never heard of a government legal job in which salaries were reduced; government tends to just not fill vacancies. What has changed is the level of debt from law school degrees and the absence of more lucrative work for lawyers to transfer to.

... May 13, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Good to see some lawyers being afflicted with the same vibrant economy the rest of us get.

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 1:33 pm

There may also be something fishy with that chart of other court personnel salaries. Many of those jobs are being eliminated, and those remaining have salaries reflecting seniority. What is a switchboard operator, anyway?

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Elipses: To paraphrase Atticus Finch, the attorneys are poor, because the people they serve are poor.

Dave Schuler May 13, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Good to see some lawyers being afflicted with the same vibrant economy the rest of us get.

I think there’s actually a disaster in the making for most lawyers, especially most new lawyers. The old business model is collapsing and the law schools are continuing to pump out new grads at unrealistically high cost. Unless they’re graduating from Harvard, Stanford, UoC, NU, etc. not only can they not get jobs they can’t get jobs while carrying enormous debt that isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy.

On the other hand one of our oldest, dearest friends is a lawyer specializing in health care law who’s earning, probably, into seven figures. This is a great time for a lawyer to specialize in health care law.

... May 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm

This is a great time for a lawyer to specialize in health care law.

Nothing like being a rentier, is there?

steve May 13, 2014 at 3:28 pm

We had one of those guys years ago. Couldn’t figure out what he did that was worth so much. Got a good GP lawyer who costs less, still not cheap, and is very accessible.

Back OT, the in thing now seems to be working as a paralegal or something for a couple of years before going to law school.

Steve

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm

I’ll start with the law schools. Law School Tuition 1985-2012 Law school tuition regularly increases 6-7% per year (private) or 10% per year (public). What else increases like that, health care? And what would be the ostensible reason, other than demand exceeds supply. But where does the money go? There isn’t anything more expensive about a law school than a liberal arts school. (At least one explanation I’ve heard is that the law school helps underwrite other colleges)

Law school applications dropped 38% from 2010 to 2013, which might still mean that demand exceeds supply, but there is a question of quality of the pool.

michael reynolds May 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Ass-deep in lawyers and I can’t find a handyman.

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 4:09 pm

@steve, my impression has been that paralegal jobs are declining, perhaps more so than lawyers, but not nearly as bad as legal secretaries. Paralegals tend to do the type of repetitive, though detailed work, that technology and out-sourcing is most competitive.

There was an article at Volokh a year or so ago about the dismal state of affairs for legal secretaries, which was most interesting for the vitriol that anonymous lawyers in law firms spewed at senior lawyers that couldn’t type their own documents or were technology-impaired. I expect the ratio of lawyer to support staff to continue to decline.

Guarneri May 13, 2014 at 4:47 pm

“What is a switchboard operator, anyway?”

The people they set up to handle you after the Obamacare website became too frustrating………..

Guarneri May 13, 2014 at 4:50 pm

“Ass-deep in lawyers and I can’t find a handyman.”

My brother is available, but getting him to show up is problematic. Of course he does legal stuff for free. Says he knows what he’s doing, even though he’s trained in IT…………but that’s what he says about everything.

Guarneri May 13, 2014 at 4:53 pm

My experience is admittedly biased. Very biased, actually. But M&A lawyers (good ones) work their arses off, get paid royally and are worth every penny.

jan May 13, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Skilled plumbers, electricians, handymen are hard to find because most people want white collar, “clean” positions, and shun the more lucrative hand’s on work.

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