Compared to What?

April 7th, 2015 / By

Some legal educators have a New Yorker’s view of the world. Like the parochial Manhattanite in Saul Steinberg’s famous illustration, these educators don’t see much beyond their own fiefdom. They see law graduates out there in the world, practicing their profession or working in related fields. And there are doctors, who (regrettably) make more money than lawyers do. But really, what else is there? What do people do if they don’t go to law school?

Michael Simkovic takes this position in a recent post, declaring (in bold) that: “The question everyone who decides not to go to law school . . . must answer is–what else out there is better?” In a footnote, Simkovic concedes that “[a]nother graduate degree might be better than law school for a particular individual,” but he clearly doesn’t think much of the idea.

People, of course, work in hundreds of occupations other than law. Some of them even enjoy their work. Simkovic’s concern lies primarily with the financial return on college and graduate degrees. Even here, though, the contemporary options are much broader than many legal educators realize.

Time Was: The 1990s

Financially, the late twentieth century was a good time to be a lawyer. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published its first Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) in 1997, the four occupations with the highest salaries were medicine, dentistry, podiatry, and law. Those four occupations topped the salary list (in that order) whether sorted by mean or median salary. [Note that OES collects data only on salaries; it does not include self-employed individuals like solo practitioners or partners–whether in law or medicine. For more on that point, see the end of this post.]

Law was a pretty good deal in those days. The graduate program was just three years, rather than four. There were no college prerequisites and no post-graduate internships. Knowledge of math was optional, and exposure to bodily fluids minimal. Imagine earning a median salary of $109,987 (in 2014 dollars) without having to examine feet! Although a willingness to spend four years of graduate school studying feet, along with a lifetime of treating them, would have netted you a 28% increase in median salary.

But let’s not dally any longer in the twentieth century.

Time Is: 2014

BLS just released its latest survey of occupational wages, and the results show how much the economy has changed. Law practice has slipped to twenty-second place in a listing of occupations by mean salary, and twenty-sixth place when ranked by median. One subset of lawyers, judges and magistrates, holds twenty-fifth place on the list of median salaries, but practicing lawyers have slipped a notch lower.

About half the slippage in law’s salary prominence stems from the splintering of medical occupations, both in the real world and as measured by BLS. We no longer visit “doctors,” we see pediatricians, general practitioners, internists, obstetricians, anesthesiologists, surgeons, and psychiatrists–often in that order. These medical specialists, along with the dentists and podiatrists, all enjoy a higher median salary than lawyers.

There are two other health-related professions, meanwhile, that have moved ahead of lawyers in wages: nurse anesthetists and pharmacists. Both of these fields require substantial graduate education: at least two years for nurse anesthetists and two to four years for pharmacists. But the training pays off with a median salary of $153,780 for nurse anesthetists and $120,950 for pharmacists.

Today’s college graduates, furthermore, don’t have to deal with teeth, airways, or medications to earn more than lawyers do. The latest BLS survey includes nine other occupations that top lawyers’ median salary: financial managers, airline pilots, natural sciences managers, air traffic controllers, marketing managers, computer and information systems managers, petroleum engineers, architectural and engineering managers, and chief executives.

How much do salaried lawyers earn in their more humble berth on the OES list? They collected a median salary of $114,970 in 2014. That’s good, but it’s only 4.5% higher (in inflation-controlled dollars) than the median salary in 1997. Pharmacists enjoyed a whopping 28% increase in median real wages to reach $120,950 in 2014. And the average nurse anesthetist earned a full third more than the average lawyer that year.

If you’re a college student willing to set your financial sights just a bit lower than the median salary in law practice, there are lots of other options. Here are some of the occupations with a 2014 median salary falling between $100,000 and $114,970: sales manager, physicist, computer hardware engineer, computer and information research scientist, compensation and benefits manager, purchasing manager, astronomer, aerospace engineer, political scientist, mathematician, software developer for systems software, human resources manager, training and development manager, public relations and fundraising manager, optometrist, nuclear engineer, and prosthodontist (those are the folks who will soon be fitting baby boomers for their false teeth).

Law graduates could apply their education to some of these jobs; with a few more years of graduate education, a savvy lawyer could offer the aging boomers a package deal on a will and a new pair of choppers. But the most common themes in these salary-leading occupations do not revolve around law. Instead, the themes are math, science, and management–none of which we teach very well in law school.

Twenty-first Century Humility

Lawyers will not disappear. Even Richard Susskind, who asked about “The End of Lawyers?” in a provocative book title, doesn’t think lawyers are done for. We still need lawyers to fill both traditional roles and new ones. Lawyers, however, will not have the same economic and social dominance that they enjoyed in the late twentieth century.

Some lawyers will still make a lot of money. As the American Lawyer proclaimed last year, the “super rich” are getting richer. But the prospects for other lawyers are less certain, and the appeal of competing fields has increased.

If law schools want to understand their decline in talented applicants, they need to look more closely at the competition. What do today’s high school students and middle schoolers think about law? Those students will choose their majors soon after arriving at college. Once they choose engineering, computer science, business, or health-related courses, a legal career will seem even less appealing. If we want potential students to find law attractive, we need to know more about their alternatives and preferences.

We also need to be realistic about how many students ultimately will–or should–pursue a law degree. As citizens of a healthy economy, we need doctors, nurse anesthetists, pharmacists, managers, and software developers. We even need the odd astronomer or two. Law is just one of the many occupations that make a society thrive. The twenty-first century is a time of interdependence that should bring a sense of humility.


Here are some key points about the method behind the OES survey. For more information, see this FAQ page, which includes the information I summarize here:

1. OES obtains wage data directly from establishments. This method eliminates bias that may occur when individuals report their own wages. The survey, however, includes only wage data for salaried employees. Solo practitioners (in any field) are excluded, as are individuals who draw their income entirely from partnerships or other forms of profit sharing.

2. “Wages” include production bonuses and tips, but not end-of-year bonuses, profit-sharing, or benefits.

3. Although BLS publishes OES data every year, the data are gathered on a rolling basis. Income for “1997” or “2014” reflects data gathered over three years, including the reference year. BLS adjusts wage figures for the two older years, using the Employment Cost Index, so the reported wages appear in then “current” dollars. The three-year collection period, however, can mask sudden shifts in employment trends.

4. BLS cautions against using OES data to compare changes in employment data over time, unless the user offers necessary context. In particular, it is important for readers to understand that short-term comparisons are difficult (because of the point in the previous paragraph) and that occupational categories change frequently. For those reasons, I have limited my cross-time comparisons and have noted the splintering of occupational categories. The limited comparison offered here, however, seems helpful in understanding the relationship of law practice to other high-paying occupations.

5. For the data used in this post, follow this link and download the spreadsheets. The HTML versions are prettier, but they do not include all of the data.


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