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The other America



Recently PrawfsBlawg inadvertently held an impromptu Upper Class Twit of the Year competition, when a thread about law school faculty hiring veered into a discussion regarding entry-level salaries for law professors, and specifically about whether these were munificent enough to allow someone to raise a family. Such entry-level salaries (counting summer money, which for 90% of legal academics and 100% of pre-tenure people is effectively part of their salary) currently range from $100,000 at very low-ranked schools to around $185,000 at elite schools, with the average being around $130,000 to $140,000. These sums were described as “dismal if you have a family to support” by one commentator, which triggered a debate regarding just how great the financial sacrifices (sic) legal academics make actually are.

While a number of commenters took the author of the “dismal” characterization to task, others jumped to his or her’s defense:

The salary’s pretty dismal when you consider the current barriers to entry — roughly $210,000 in student loans followed by 1-2 years clerking, 1-3 years of private practice, and 2 years of fellowship/VAP. Assuming one year of clerking, two years of private practice, and two years of fellowship/VAP that comes out to approximately $110,000 yearly average salary pre-academia (it’s actually even worse when you consider the lousy tax impact). That’s not really enough, especially for someone supporting a family (see, e.g., http://www.calcxml.com/calculators/student-loan-repayment?skn=#results). Practically-speaking, this makes legal academia a pretty rough financial option for the typical applicant who has to support a family.

All this reminded me of University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson’s lament that it’s hard out here for a family in Hyde Park scraping along on a combined income of around $400,000 per year (btw the perpetual race for most obnoxious member on the U of C law faculty is academia’s version of the 1978 Belmont.)

Anyway, the government just published figures on wages in America in 2012. Some highlights:

153.6 million Americans earned wages last year. This means that just under 40% of all Americans 16 years or older earned no wages in 2012 (there were approximately 252 million such people in the country last year). Breaking down these figures into income categories:

Median wage of all Americans 16 and older in 2012 (working and non-working): $6,250

Median wage of Americans in 2012 who worked for income: $27,519

15.8% of adult Americans earned $50,000 or more in 2012.

26% of Americans who worked for income earned $50,000 or more in 2012.

18.9% of adult Americans of working age (ages 16-64) earned $50,000 or more in 2012.

95.5% of adult Americans earned less than $100,000 in 2012.

58.8% of adult Americans either didn’t earn income or earned less than $10,000 in 2012.

24.2% of Americans who worked for income earned less than $10,000 in 2012.

39.6% of Americans who worked for income earned less than $20,000 in 2012.

63.5% of adult Americans either didn’t earn income or earned less than $20,000 in 2012.

The last three statistics drive home a point that remains largely invisible among the privileged classes (defined here as social contexts in which people have arguments about how difficult it is or isn’t to support a family on a low-six figure salary). We read that the unemployment rate is down to 7.0% and think that doesn’t sound too bad — after all 93 is a lot larger than seven. Except:

40% of people with jobs are working for poverty-level wages.

Nearly three out of five adult Americans made basically no money at all last year (No money at all being defined as less than $10,000. BTW less than 13% of the population is 65 or over, and 65 is increasingly becoming a constructive rather than an actual retirement age).

If a “good job” is defined as one that generates wages of $50,000 (a figure that needless to say would make many of the people in the Prawfs thread shriek in agony at the mere thought of trying to survive on a third world income), then fewer than one in six adult Americans currently has a good job.

Update:Atrios’ points out that even a law professor entry-level salary may not be that comfortable if one has $210,000 in educational debt, as apparently the commenter quoted in the Prawfsblawg thread has. This is true, but it also points to other ironies:

(1) Law school debt is that high, in part, because of significant increases in the faculty salaries that the commenter thinks are low (Although to be fair this is a relatively minor factor in skyrocketing tuition costs. A bigger factor is the radical decline in student-faculty ratios, which of course provides faculty with non-pecuniary compensation increases — lower teaching loads, smaller classes, etc. Also, current graduates of the primary feeder schools for legal academia — Harvard, Yale, and Stanford — who take out law schools loans take out an average of $110,000 to $125,000, while 20% of the graduates of these schools graduate with no law school debt at all). But that irony pales before this one:

(2) If the Prawfsblawg commenter snags a low-paying entry-level legal academic job and keeps it, he/she will never have to pay any of the principal on his/her loans. Here’s how it works: assuming the loans are federal (as essentially all law school loans have now been for several years), then the commenter can go on PAYE and PSLF, because 196 of 202 ABA law schools are “non-profits,” and therefore becoming a law professor, for legal purposes, counts as a form of public service work! This means that instead of paying $2,500 per month for ten years or $1,560 per month for 25 years — the sums the commenter would have to pay to retire $210,000 of educational debt under the standard ten year and extended 25 year plans — the commenter will start off only having to pay $690 per month, which barely covers half of the interest on them. After ten years, assuming COL raises, the commenter will have close to $300,000 in principal debt — but at that point the debt will be forgiven, and the forgiven sum doesn’t even get imputed as income for tax purposes, as it would if the commenter had been in the private sector (also PAYE doesn’t forgive debt for private sector workers until after 20 years of payments, not ten). Nice work if you can get it . . .

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  • Davis X. Machina

    …40% of people with jobs are working for poverty-level wages.

    When I taught and coached debate, I’d defy teams to think of another policy problem, of this magnitude, that could be solved in a week, given a legislature and president who all wanted to — the affirmative fiat power.

    The constraits — traditional in HS policy debate — are:

    The problem must be real, and large.
    The problem must cost real money, and/or risk real people’s lives and health.
    The problem must be one the status quo won’t eventually solve through simple inertia.

    The proposed policy must be shown to work, or have worked already, elsewhere, or to be reasonably expected to so work.

    The policy must not have side-effects worse than the harms it is designed to solve.

    Even the 9th graders couldn’t bollocks this one up.

    Yet we do.


    • are you seriously proposing the idea that Congress is, in general, as smart as a ninth grader?

      Let alone people like the Koch brothers, who are insulated from any real world ideas by layers of middle management and bales of money.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Congress is full of people who are in general as smart as a ninth grader. Probably smarter — experience counts for something.

        The problem is, even though Lord of the Flies is only a slight exaggeration, the average high school freshman is still not nearly fallen to the moral level of, say, John Cormyn.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Clearly we need Education Reform, stat!

  • BH

    The people who post and comment on Prawfsblawg represent a teeny tiny fraction of law school professors. It is fun to contemplate this thread, but it would be wrong ( and I know this will not stop people from doing it) to make them stand in for all, or even a significant number of, law profs.

    • Grumpy

      they’re discussing law professor salaries on a blog about and for law professors, it doesn’t exactly blow my mind that they’re failing to consider the broader implications of the demise of American labor. And I seem to remember at least one main pager posting about how LeBron is underpaid compared to what his added value is actually worth. Whither the outcry then?

      • djw

        And I seem to remember at least one main pager posting about how LeBron is underpaid compared to what his added value is actually worth. Whither the outcry then?

        Is it your contention that law professors are actually worth what they’re paid?

      • Medrawt

        Should the value of a professional athlete be in the hundreds of millions? I have nothing against paying them lucratively – they provide a service many people are eager to consume and on average they have very short careers. Does the gap between NBA minimum wage and a public school teacher’s suggest that our societal priorities are out of whack? Of course.

        But the fact is that NBA players generate astronomical sums of money. At this point ticket money isn’t the half of it; the merchandising and local broadcasting contracts are very lucrative (insanely so for teams in huge markets), and all teams share in the wealth that comes with the national television contracts. In particular as the best, near-most famous (I wonder if Kobe is still more famous internationally), and most marketable player, LeBron could be argued to be personally responsible for a disproportionate amount of the league’s profits (something which is already inflated in basketball because of smaller roster sizes). It’s billions and billions of dollars. SOMEBODY has to take it home. So for the sake of moral outrage it should be the owners pocketing all of it, so we don’t feel embarrassed at how much more a basketball player makes than a teacher? The money has been generated, and it’s not even the case, as I said, that ticket sales to individual fans is even what really drives it any more.

        • Warren Terra

          I would argue that professional athletes should be much, much worse paid (and much, much better pensioned), for one simple reason having little to do with the athletes themselves: I believe that the prominence of these athletes as highly paid aspirational figures is tremendously damaging to our society, and especially to some parts of our society for whom this is held up as the only plausible path to social and monetary success. When we admire the skill, success, and dedication of a star athlete, do we properly appreciate how many people destroyed their lives trying to become that person?

          Of course, one simple answer is to tax high earners a lot more, and then to pay a lot more to make other professions more attractive and to improve the education that could make it more plausible for disadvantaged students to see a path to success that involves hitting the books instead of the boards. Higher teacher pay could kill both birds with one stone.

          • mch

            Well said, Warren!

        • elizabeth

          I wouldn’t care who got the money so long as some portion of it was used to pay for all the goddam stadiums.

        • Philip Arlington

          Individual professional athletes don’t really generate the money that comes into the sport, especially in team sports because their status as the best is created purely by comparison with others. There has to be someone who is the best player, but those who happen to be so just got lucky. They are completely dependent on other people being worse than they are. Other people with more skill were born in the wrong country, chose a different sport etc.

    • Tybalt

      And yet, those of us who have attended and taught at law schools know full well that the topic of the self-abnegating financial sacrifice of legal academics is legion.

      • Paul Campos

        The hypothetical salaries of legal academics who “could have” been partners at V10 firms are collectively equal to 43.3% of the national GDP.

    • kindasorta

      Why wouldn’t PrawfsBlawg be representative of law professors’ feelings on this issue at least?

      • BH

        Because there are over 17k law profs in the country, the vast majority of whom, I am sure, have never heard of Prawfsblawg. The comment thread is long, but most of the comments are not voicing the opinion that law prof salaries are dismal. We do not even know who was really a law prof, as there were a number of comments under Anon.

        As I said, it’s great fun to read this stuff, and shake our heads at what some people think. But we have to leave off taking Internet comments as defining the world outside of cyberspace where most people live.

        • DrDick

          This is really nonresponsive, since other law profs need not be aware of the blog for these to be representative of their beliefs/attitudes. I would hope that even a law professor could figure that out.

          • saucyturtles

            Does that mean that comments on NRO can be taken as representative of the beliefs and attitudes of Americans? You could argue that there are many Americans who don’t comment there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not representative. Actually, Kanye West is an American, so maybe he’s representative of Americans’ beliefs and attitudes, even if most Americans aren’t Kanye West. This is fun.

            • DrDick

              You might well argue that the views expressed at NRO are representative of American conservatives, the group which they actually represent. In much the same way the blog in question may be representative of law professors’ views, rather than all professors. I am not saying it is so, merely that the prior comment did nothing to address this issue.

              • BH

                There are too many different law blogs, with too many different views, to say that any one is representative of law professors. Volokh, Balkinization, Legal Insurrection, TaxProf, Concurring Opinions, Althouse…others with very divergent views. To the extent that law professors are saying something, the views expressed are, necessarily, those of some law professors. But, as I indicated, we do not even know that all the commenters, as opposed to the original poster, were even law professors. Just not enough information to say that a statistically significant number of law profs. believe their salaries are dismal. That was the only pont I was making. The proposition was vigorously challenged in the thread itself by other law professors– assuming that they, like the people they were addressing, were law profs.

                • anonprof

                  I was one of the commenters on the Prawfs thread, and I thought the complaint about salaries being “dismal” was ridiculous. I–and I’d like to think most of my colleagues–know how great it is to be a law professor, and that the salary is actually quite good. Just because one job candidate this year thinks the salaries are awful, don’t think we all do.

                • DrDick

                  I would add that Paul is explicitly not representing all law profs here, but rather a significant subset thereof.

          • BH

            You could just as easily say that the commenters in the thread who rejected the idea that law professors’ salaries are dismal are representative of law professors’ views. There is just no reason to suppose that several comments to a post represent what the majority of law profs believe.

            • Philip Arlington

              It is indicative of the culture of legal academia that there are some people who are prepared to make such comments. If the culture was what it should be, given how privileged law profs are relative to other people in society, including their own students, even those who felt underpaid would be ashamed to say so out loud.

    • Tristan

      Quick someone survey literally every law professor, otherwise we’re all just engaging in baseless class warfare.

      • BH

        Not necessary. It is enough that the post called attention to a type of person who can be found in nearly every profession: the person who never has enough, no matter how much he or she has.

      • Philip Arlington

        It’s not “class warfare” it is targetted criticism of a specific vested interest which is abusing its political power to extract rents from the productive economy. And to make it worse the group is dominated by people unusually keen to parade their social commitment and moral superiority. At least investment bankers don’t do that.

  • Davis X. Machina

    …then less than one in six adult Americans currently has a good job.

    If you’re a plutocrat, you want to turn simply having a job into a positional good, one whose goodness depends on other people not having it, rather than whether it’s any good per se. Like health insurance under the status quo. Or a public education…

    Then all steps you take that have as a by-product diminishing the good, short of making the actually disappear, are possible to take without consequences, besides getting richer still, that is.

  • I had one year where I actually felt “rich” – and this, on a $30,OOO a year salary!

    When I negotiated my salary to run this millionaires small company, he didn’t want to pay me more than that. But to make-up for the low salary, he let me live in his two bedroom apartment in Peter Cooper Village, on 23rd Street, right by the East River, rent-free!
    RENT FREE!!!
    And not only rent-free – free electric, free EVERYTHING!!! Even a well-stocked liquor cabinet – which I managed to unstock in the year I lived there.

    Not having to pay rent, or utilities, and not having a car, made me feel I like I was a rich man!

    I was able to see Broadway shows, went to sporting events, and opera’s, and symphonies, and concerts, and good restaurants. And my girlfriend accompanied me, when her schedule allowed it.
    Did I save any of that money?
    HELL NO!
    When was I ever going to have a chance to live like that again?

    Then, I quit that job, because that millionaire got to be too much of an @$$hole to take – even if it meant losing my rent-free Manhattan digs.

    I got a decent job in Queens, moved into a small apartment there, and went back to not being able to afford doing much.

    But I’ll never forget that ONE year, when I was able to do the kind of things that make living in NY City worthwhile – and much more often than I could when I had to pay for rent, and electricity, and cable, and everything else.

    I never made more that $65,000 in my life. And that was in NC, when I was a Training Manager. But my rent, utilities, and paying off my car loan, and gas, kept me from coming close to enjoying myself as much as I did that one year – 15 years before, on less than half the salary.

    $100,000, or $150,000, sounds mighty rich to a person whose unemployment ran out almost two years ago, and hasn’t been able to find a job in 4 years – and now can’t, because he has to take care of his ailing 81 1/2 year-old, legally-blind and diabetic mother.

    • I should add, that this was in the mid-80’s.

      • GoDeep

        $150K is might rich, gulag. $150K places you in the top 10% of household incomes. If its a 2 worker $150K family then you’re in the top 2%…and only a measly $207K from being a part of the Top 1%.

        I see a heavy sense of entitlement/privilege from the college educated set. I had a friend once who told me that $70K wasn’t a middle class income. Since I know where she grew up my jaw hit the floor. I told her that $70K was actually well above a middle class income; its the 36th percentile to be exact–for households.

        • GoDeep

          Here’s a handy dandy income distribution calculator if you’re interested: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/15/business/one-percent-map.html?_r=0

        • Philip Arlington

          No income makes you rich if you spent all of it because wealth is about assets, not income. The collapse of public understanding of this point is a key element of the West’ssocio-economic breakdown because it undermines peoples’ ability to grasp the importance of saving and investment.

  • Tybalt

    less than one in six adult Americans currently has a good job

    Which, in an ordinary society, would be a matter of concern to its jurists and its academy.

  • kindasorta

    Naturally, they didn’t apply this math to the lives of any of their recent graduates who were foolish enough to believe that a JD might correlate strongly with enough income to raise a family.

    • BoredJD

      I grieve for them. I’d love to offer the following advice to these unfortunate souls. Some of this may seem familiar:

      I’m not one to tear anyone down, but you should have done your research (doesn’t seem like advice, but I hear this leveled at a lot of recent law grads these days, so I thought I’d pass it along). These people are law professors. Supposed to be smarter than the average American. Anybody could have seen in 2006 when they went to law school that legal education was part of a great bubble and would soon be collapsing.

      Salaries are set by the market. You’re in the market. Put your faith in the market, all hail the market! Wait, what was I saying again?

      PAYE and PSLF. In its eminent wisdom, Americans have determined that people should rack up huge educational debts but be able to take low-paid service careers. Whether you are an academic making a “measly” 100K in a non-profit job or a law student making 40K as a small-firm associate, PAYE and PSLF assures that you won’t be homeless in a van living down the river. And remember, unless you are homeless in a van living down by the river you have no RIGHT to complain about your situation.


      Unfortunately, law [professing] is not for everyone. Even before the recession, not all lawyers got jobs as law professors who wanted them. You should have gone to Yale instead of just Harvard, or clerked for SCOTUS instead of the Fifth Circuit. Don’t whine about your own failures.

      • I am a longtime follower of the Law School Scam debate and I just have to say that, with respect to anonymous internet comments, BoredJD consistently outperforms his/her peers.


  • rm

    It also occurs to one that law professors usually work on the same campus with other kinds of professors who teach other subjects, mostly to undergraduates. Apparently these guys have never spoken to any of those people.

    • Tybalt

      It’s discouraged among legal academics generally, that much is true. Also, to be perfectly frank, legal academics very frequently lack the intellectual chops to converse well with academics in other disciplines.

    • DrDick

      Especially since the average salary for all professors is only $73K and it ranges between $46K and $83K for assistant profs, depending on their field.

      • postmodulator

        And that’s disregarding adjuncts, right? Who get paid in buttons.

        • junct

          …and our bonuses are in stickers. For the holiday season, I will be thankful to be teaching in my field but the insurrection resumes January 2.

  • Anonymous

    Just want to add: I’m in med school, and this is hardly uniques. The mostly 24-year-olds are ALREADY bitching about how HARRRRD they have to work, and how having to pay off 4 years of (in-state) tuition at 7% will be, when you’re only making $100-$300k starting salary. Doctors also love to complain that residents make “NO money” which means…$50,000 a year. If a doctor ever declared bankruptcy because they couldn’t make their loan payments, I have yet to hear it. And I always want to suggest they go to BofA, ask for $250k personal loan at 7% with a 7-year forebearance, and tell me what kind of reaction that gets.

    • Gwen

      My parents are doctors. They worked harder to get their degrees than I did (I went to law school).

      The upside is that my T3 law school degree was a lot easier to set aside when I needed to make real money.

      IT work… the last best hope of liberal arts majors everywhere.

    • mch

      Must say, as the parent of a recently minted attorney and a med student — did I mention they started at the same time, but the med student will take years longer to be fully “accredited” (attending) and to stop having to borrow? Interesting to compare the two professions. I guess the advantage med students have is that nearly all of them WILL be able to get employment, though not necessarily of the most lucrative kind. Many law students these days can’t even hope for a job at all. Should we say that these professions ain’t what they used to be? Or are we using the top-tier of these professions today as some sort of norm for the past as well? I don’t know (doctors and lawyers not previously being a part of my experience).
      Meanwhile, the teaching adjuncts labor away, and most tenured or tenure-track professors (most, I said — a small percentage are exceptional) are hardly earning a corporate lawyer’s or surgeon’s salary.
      Now I’ll go all old fogy. I grew up (1950’s and 1960’s) struggling middle class in a NYC suburb in NJ with a wide range of classes (not to mention ethnicities), including at the high end CEO types. Some of my friends were children of said CEO’s. Their households were no different from my on the fundamentals. E.g., you saved the waxed paper lining of cereal boxes for reuse. The new fogy in me also remembers that most households, rich or poor, also had a woman at home full-time, aka housewife, to tend to such details.
      I think I’m saying we haven’t even begun to figure out what a middle class might look like today, much less an upper middle class. All we’ve got are images of rich and poor-to-fearful of becoming -poor.

    • malraux

      Not that it means much, but since student loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy, doctors can’t pursue that as a means to get out from student loan payments.

  • Anon21

    Let’s not forget about the true dispossessed of the earth: adjuncts, the new working class.

    • Nobdy

      A lot of professors like the “no CEO should make more than 12 times the lowest paid worker” rule. How about a “No University administrator should make more than 6 times what an adjunct teaching a full load (4 classes) would make” rule? Oh, I see, income disparity is fine, so long as you are the beneficiary.

      Note: I would be fine with both rules. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me. I’m for less income disparity, and I made six figures this year.

      • Vance Maverick

        What’s the basis for 12, and for 6?

        I agree entirely that extreme income disparity is a severe problem, and we should act to reduce it. I just don’t know where the specific numbers are coming from.

        • Jmauro

          I don’t know abut the six, but twelve was the average difference in the 1950’s which is why it’s often used.

        • Nobdy

          The 12 is explained below. For the 6 I just halved the 12 because A) Universities are not for profit businesses and there’s something obscene about paying their administrators like they were B) Adjunct is closer to Dean than mail room boy is to CEO in terms of required qualifications and the sorts of tasks and C) Universities tend to not be as large as the largest publicly traded companies.

          It is a somewhat arbitrary offhand number thrown out for the sake of discussion.

    • Joe Bob

      My SO taught a Legal Writing class as an adjunct in 2006. The stipend was a flat $3,000. She figured her net income from that gig averaged to $8/hour. When she signed the contract for the job it came with a form asking if she just wanted to donate the stipend to the University. Implication being – nobody does these jobs for the money.

      True enough, she wasn’t but she still didn’t donate the stipend. That would be just fattening the University’s cash cow that much more and there are a lot of other organizations out there much more deserving of charity.

      • postmodulator

        Remember, universities are run like a business, a business which is entitled to free money in exchange for no services.

        At my current institution, I am both alumnus and employee. Apparently this keeps me off the “alumnus” donation-solicitation list and on the “employee” donation-solicitation list. I will not, as a matter of principle, donate a portion of my pay back to my employer. (I am even less so inclined to do so the day after my wife chastised me for the amount of work I bring home.)

        On the upside, reading this thread is the first time it ever occurred to me that I was eligible for PSFL.

        • postmodulator

          Duhhhh, PSLF. Lacko of edito buttono delenda est.

        • Lee Rudolph

          I will not, as a matter of principle, donate a portion of my pay back to my employer.

          Christ, yes. My position always was, the best use that my employing university could make of any money that came its way would be to pay me (indeed, to pay me more), so why introduce friction? One year they actually had the gall to solicit multi-thousand dollar “gifts” from the full professors (we were not, repeat, NOT paid at law school or even business school levels).

          Lately both my undergraduate and graduate mathematics departments have started to send me quarterly “newsletters”. In fact, they are often full of interesting news; but of course they also always feature (polite) requests for donations. Since both institutions have endowments two (decimal) orders of magnitude greater than the (meager) endowment of the place I retired from, and both departments have many alumni (both academic and non-academic) whose wealth (and perhaps income) is between one and two orders of magnitude greater than mine ever was (3 is not impossible), I have not responded with money there either, though I wish them well.

  • Nobdy

    I would imagine these numbers are slightly ameliorated by full time students and stay at home spouses, but they are still sobering. What is truly enraging about them is not how they are treated by law professors, who have daft ideas about all sorts of things (Teach THREE courses in ONE semester? What am I, a wizard? And how am I to publish my article on pre-colonial horse-carriage traffic stops in Rhode Island? I’d have to work 25 hours a week, like some sort of Viking barge-slave!) but how our politicians treat them, which is to say they blame people who are struggling for struggling and try to make them struggle even more. These statistics starkly show that the problem is not individual laziness but structural lack of opportunity, and yet nobody seems willing to try and change the structure in any meaningful way.

    • BoredJD

      It’s a form of meritocracy in its most extreme form. The notion is that by virtue of jumping through a series of relatively arbitrary hoops during the first 25-30 years of their lives, law professors deserve to not only make a top 5% salary, but to do as much research and writing as possible, with total control over their work, and no threat of ever being fired unless someone gets stabbed.

      Now the students at the mid-tier or low ranked law schools don’t deserve anything approaching a decent life, in fact, it’s more important that those students go into debt to fund the important work of the law professors, which is of course extremely vital to the fabric of our nation.

      • Dave

        …by virtue of jumping through a series of relatively arbitrary hoops during the first 25-30 years of their lives, law professors deserve to not only make a top 5% salary, but to do as much research and writing as possible, with total control over their work, and no threat of ever being fired unless someone gets stabbed.

        Or “tenure”, as I believe one calls it…. A notion not confined to law professors…

        • Nobdy

          Humanities professors tend to be less coddled, paid less, higher courseloads etc…

          Science professors do research that actually IS important to society, and I have never encountered a science professor who didn’t work extremely hard.

  • mike in dc

    Contract attorneys working for the CFPB make 22.00 an hour. Only BigLaw associates and partners, and maybe partners at boutique and mid-sized firms, make north of 200k. Even 100k would put you in the upper tier for private sector and government lawyers.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Contract attorneys working for the CFPB make 22.00 an hour

      In other words, they’re arm’s-length government workers, and regulators to boot, and regulating the FIRE sector, to boot, to boot.

      In the prevailing political climate, they’re lucky to be getting paid.

      In the prevailing political climate, they’re lucky to not have bounties on them.

  • Colin Day

    All this reminded me of University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson’s lament that it’s hard out here for a family in Hyde Park scraping along on a combined income of around $400,000 per year (btw the perpetual race for most obnoxious member on the U of C law faculty is academia’s version of the 1978 Belmont.)

    OK, but who is Alydar to his Affirmed?

    • I love the reference. The track I saw Affirmed run at in 1979, Hollywood Park, is closing tomorrow after 75 years.

  • I frequently have to listen to airline Captains, who make half again to twice my (very substantial) salary whine about their taxes.

    I usually offer to trade paychecks with them so that I may shoulder their burden while they bask in my lower tax bracket.

    No takers so far.

    • Nick

      Airline captains can easily get screwed — piloting jobs are terribly hard to come by these days, the oversupply is terrible, and companies are constantly merging, cutting pay, taking away perks, etc. Also, I believe, they have a mandatory retirement at 60 which destroys their social security benefits.

      • Retirement age was raised to age 65 back in 2008. I’ve heard talk of age 67 but hopefully it’s a few years off.

        That has caused my career to stagnate since 5 years worth of people senior to me that would otherwise have retired have not.

        I’m in my 9th year with the company. At our current rate of retirements I expect it will take me at least 3 more years before I’m eligible for Captain and maybe as long as 5.

        But yes, you can get screwed in a merger because when they merge two seniority lists you can lose years of relative seniority.

  • Ralph Wiggum

    To put it into an international context, the advertised salary for a senior law lecturer at a prestigious London university comes to $75,000-$85,000.


    I think that part of that is that (from my limited knowledge of the legal world), the boundaries between legal academia and law as it is actually practiced are fairly heavily drawn in the UK.

    • Philip Arlington

      I think the key point is that legal academia is much more tightly entwined with the rest of academia because law is an undergraduate degree in the UK. At Oxford and Cambridge, whose salary scales set expectations at the top end, fellows in law have to share the senior common room at their college with the other fellows every day, and as they are outnumbered by about twenty to one, there is no chance of them gaming the system to earn a huge premium.

      Also, pay scales for UK academics as a whole are effectively controlled by the national government (and the unions).

  • Warren Terra

    Starting salaries have a low figure of $100k, and almost twice that at the better schools? That seems insane to me. In the biological sciences (which I know very well), after you get your undergrad degree you live very modestly for about a decade (post-baccalaureate work a a technician to gain experience and improve the resume; a PhD thesis; and a post-doc position – all averaging perhaps $30-40K per year salary or stipend, for 60-80 hours/week as a trained professional), all in the hopes of getting a job whose starting salary, if you are one of the best dozen people in the country that year, will be significantly less than $100k (and many people lucky enough to get a faculty job will receive a bit more than half that) – and you will be personally responsible for obtaining the grant funding to pay most of that salary, as indeed you were in grad school and in your post-doc.

    And that is one of the more optimistic academic career paths outside of law! In the biological sciences, at least we don’t pay tuition, our stipends are livable, and we have fairly minimal teaching duties (albeit maximal research duties). In the humanities, the graduate students often do pay tuition, the stipends can be half what they are in the physical sciences, the teaching loads to obtain those stipends enormous, and the salaries even worse.

    I understand the legal path to academia is different, and accumulated law-school debts are higher: but twice the salary, plus they’re often hired younger and/or after having already earned significant sums? Frankly, I’m appalled.

  • Jamie

    This article is unmoored from reality. I’m pretty sure most professor’s(even the in the tenure track) don’t start at anywhere near $100,000 a year(and I know a bunch of them).

    • CBR

      Salary & summer stipend data (not complete, but still useful) is available here: http://www.saltlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/SALT-salary-survey-20131.pdf

      • Paul Campos

        Note that the SALT survey is dominated by low-ranked schools. Entry-level salaries plus summer money at Michigan were almost $190,000 last year, and I’m pretty sure Michigan isn’t setting the market. A senior professor there tells me he’s pretty confident that they could pay 60% of what they’re currently paying at the entry level, with no appreciable loss of quality.

        Also salaries at UM Law have almost exactly doubled in inflation adjusted terms since the early 1980s.

        • L2P

          So true.

          There’s this argument that law professors could make mint as a private sector attorney, but IMO nine of them are really competent for that. They don’t know how to practice law for a profit, or how to get business. There’s a very small market for people with no book of business who write very detailed memos with perfect cite form.

          Maybe ey cold do ok in the public sector, but by and large theres nowhere for them to go. If you cut the salaries of every law professor in half tomorrow they’d all still come in to work a year from now.

    • redrob64

      Are you talking about law professors or all professors? Paul is quite clearly talking about law school profs. There is a substantial difference. As there is between business school professors (starting pay at Penn State in 1998 was $75,000) and others in academia.

      • Jamie

        point taken, Lawyer are shamelessly overpaid. I’m still new at this blog

  • BoredJD

    Remember, most if not all of these people, if they want to, could make significantly more than that as an associate at a large law firm, about the same in-house, or not too much less than that as a federal government attorney.

    If you think of the legal market as a pie, what they are complaining about its literally the ability to not eat every last molecule.

    • Cornelius McCracken

      Unable to tell if this is to be read with sarcasm or a kool-aid mustache.

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  • Shakezula

    Unless it is a family of 12 they’re supporting, I really can’t dredge up even the teeniest shred of sympathy for anyone who can’t make it on 100k.

    I suspect what they really mean is 100k won’t allow them to live in the manner to which they believe they have the right to become accustomed. I see this attitude from the sort of doctors who wind up in le doo-doo.

  • Jamie

    aaah, these are Law school professors. That generous rate of enumeration is not shared by other fields.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    it all seems very lottery to me, just dumb luck and connections made through genetics

    ‘down here its just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line’

    • I love that reference too. I am not a Springsteen fan generally but that’s a great song.

  • Gregor Sansa

    I grew up in privilege. And yet my family of 3 haven’t spent over $20k per year in any of the last 10 years, except the years we bought our house and our car. And I really have a hard time imagining any expenses over $50k that I could ever dream of calling “necessary”.

    • ChrisTS

      The only thing I can think of (other than cars, housing, or health costs) would be college. Maybe one kid in a pricey college or two in less pricey ones.

    • Warren Terra

      There are some serious class and generational issues here: I went to good public schools (well, I went to good classes in a program carved out within the city’s public school system, and had lots of books and guidance at home), and I went to a fantastic public research university when the tuition was <8% of the median family income. Now the tuition at the same school is more like 40% of the median family income, maybe more, and there have been cuts to aspects of undergraduate education (especially in the humanities), and that's leaving aside all the social issues and biases that cause oh-so-many middle-class parents to send their kids to private schools and private colleges. You can add to that paying the student's living expenses for that summer internship or unpaid research position that's so necessary after college for the right placement in employment or in graduate school, or for the younger child there's the cost of some absurdly gilded summer camp. If you're the sort of person The New York Times imagines reads their paper, it will cost you at least $50,000 after-tax dollars per kid, and that’s not including the $500/weekend dining-out and travel habit they think everyone has.

      So: I live quite a comfortably genteel life on quite little money, and I’m sure you can do a fantastic job of raising kids (with effort) on little more – but the middle-class lifestyle that is promoted these days as a mandatory requirement to be accepted within educated society requires far, far more.

    • DAS

      In the quasi-urban hellhole in which I live, maintenance on a 2 bedroom (3 bedroom if you count the den as a bedroom, as our apartment building does in its literature) is about 17K. And we aren’t particularly near a subway station or anything. And renting would be even more expensive. So I don’t know about spending just 20K/year for a family of 3 … not in the NYC area, at least.

      • BoredJD

        I suspect there is a little of both going on here. It would be very difficult to “decently” raise three kids, even in a middle-class NYC neighborhood on 40k or 50k per year.

        But what a person considered a “decent” lifestyle of course varies wildly, and often depends on the lifestyle you had growing up or the lifestyle your peers have. For many law professor candidates, their professional circle consists of people who live on the UWS, take European vacations, and send their kids to elite private high schools. Or they did not grow up in the kind of background that has three kids splitting one room of a two bedroom apartment in a nicer neighborhood vs a bigger apartment in a lower-rent district.

  • Joan King


  • Warren Terra

    Oh, by the way, regarding the “they’ve got to pay off their massive debts” claim: as has been established here, law profs are making a premium of at least $50k per year compared to other professors ($100k year if you compare the top law professor recruits to the top recruits in most other fields). Even if the $200k/year law school debt number were real, which as you say is rather dubious, how many years of an extra $50k-100k/year does it take to pay this off? Six, maybe? Of a thirty-forty year career?

    • Barry

      You always come up with good points.

      That’s at least $30K, after taxes. Given $240K debt, in 8 years they will have paid that off, from their bump. Probably by age 40. That leaves them earning $30K/year more than other professors, and with a less arduous work load. Assuming that they’d like to retire by age 60 (working until one dies is for peons), they’d have 20*$30K = $600K *before* interest and salary increases over what other professors got.

      • Warren Terra

        I have been lucky not to deal with student debt, and had assumed (hoped?) the payments were tax-deductible.

        • Denverite

          Tax deductibility starts to phase out right around a law prof’s salary. If s/he is married and his/her spouse has any income, they’ll almost certainly be over the threshold.

      • Warren Terra

        BTW, I think you’re discounting the power of compounding interest (also, on the other hand, the importance of “50-100k” as versus “50k”).

  • question

    Paul – how do your stats take into account people in my position? I’m self-employed, thus I make no ‘wage’ – but I make a decent amount of money most years.

    I’m definitely not in that set of adults ‘not making money’, but I’m not making wages.

    Also a law school grad with no educational debt, but that’s neither here nor there.

    • Paul Campos

      I believe self-employed people are counted in these statistics. The data include 153.6 million “wage earners”, which from a percentage standpoint appears to include the entire employed labor force of the US in 2012, both employees and self-employed (about 90 million people were “voluntarily” outside the labor force, while another eight million or so were in it but unemployed for the entire year).

      Since about 15 million people were self-employed last year the statistics don’t add up unless they include the self-employed.

      • Yes, we’re included; but the figures do not, in my experience filing Schedule Cs over the past 17 years, reflect our income.

        Every spring we meet with our tax preparer and my wife leads me back to the parking lot cursing and ranting. It’s not possible to address the problems caused by inequality in this country if the tax code allows people like us to offload all the risks of making more money onto the public while keeping most of the gains.

        But what do I know about law, society and ethics…I have no remaining debt from my degree, because I went to work instead of pursuing the glory of teaching.

  • [A science fiction author writes] Law, as a profession, is a historical dead-end. We’re 5-10 years away (let’s say) from computing advances that actually render human translators redundant; and 10-15 (let’s say) from the point where the vast majority of legal work can be better — both more efficiently and much more cheaply — undertaken by computers. The law, after all, is a large body of rules and applications, the complexity of which (and it is, clearly, an eye-wateringly complex discourse) can be better handled by machines. In the medium term, all that will remain of ‘The Law’ as a profession will be a rump of what in the UK we call ‘barristers’, for the courtroom human interaction/acting portion of the job; although they will be backed up by AIs that sift and select the relevant statues and precedents.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Doubtful. Law isn’t just complex, it’s vague and ambiguous and internally inconsistent, often intentionally so. An AI would just throw up its virtual hands and conclude that legal pronouncements (1) are tautological (an undue burden on free speech is undue because we say so) or (2) obviously don’t mean what they say (Congress shall make no law infringing freedom of speech; it’s illegal to monopolize).

      • postmodulator

        That whole comment reminds me of the old Asimov story where the robot’s brain explodes when someone asks it to find a rhyme for “orange.” Or the way Kirk got rid of Mudd’s fembots (that memory is hazier).

        • And, kindly, neither of you mocked me for typing ‘statues’ when I meant ‘statutes’.

        • Or Spock exorcising a malevolent entity from Enterprise‘s computer systems by asking it to compute pi to the last digit.

        • Anonymous


    • MacK

      There are a host of so-called rules in law that are actually legal balancing tests – and that is before you get to almost wholly subjective tests like the rule of reason, or the doctrine of equivalence, or balance of the hardships. Moreover, as far as drafting legal instruments, e.g., contracts is concerned – a few big law firms are automating it using so called knowledge management systems. The work product is pretty uniformly shit.

      There are tasks that can and are being automated, document review (within limits), though one downside of this approach is that serendipitous discovery of issues tends not to happen when you have searches going for defined questions. It’s why I used to like reading the decennial digests.

      • Like I say: 10-15 years away yet.

      • Well the more subjective the better replaced with a coin toss, I think.

        There are definitely many technical barriers, but there will also be a ton so social barriers. The latter might be more challenging.

    • Origami Isopod

      I for one welcome our new robotic legal overlords.

    • Hogan

      Is this like Iran being six months away from building a nuclear weapon? For how many years have we been 5-10 years away from not needing human translators?

      • Barry Freed

        It’s true that we are 5-10 years away from not needing human translators. And we always will be.

        • Hogan

          No boom today. Boom tomorrow. Always boom tomorrow.

          • Barry Freed


  • Jon Hawkins

    The Professors’ lament is a typical “have your cake and eat it” commentary. If they want to make more money then most of them have the credentials, connections and intelligence to get a very nice Partner gig in Big Law. But then of course they would have crushing hours, high stress, travel, billable hours, client management, working or contactable and responsive 7 days per week etc etc. Choose the lifestyle job or the money job. In law, you generally cannot get both. The Professors have chosen a job that is a good quality of life job and pays fairly. It should provide a comfortable lifestyle, especially if your spouse works. Professors have voted with their feet. If things are so bad, then why don’t we see any of them quitting to go into the private sector? I think we know the answer.

    • Denverite

      Well, I mean, point of fact, some have. (http://www.quinnemanuel.com/attorneys/sullivan-kathleen-m.aspx)

      But the more complete answer to your question of why more law professors don’t give up their $150k jobs for $1.5M (or even just $500k) jobs as biglaw partners is they can’t. In fact, the dirty little secret is that of the law professors who entered academia as a mid level associate at a biglaw firm, maybe a quarter of them would have made partner. Not that they’re not smart enough, or even that they’re not good enough lawyers. It’s just that it’s HARD to make partner at a biglaw firm, and it depends on a lot of factors totally out of your control — economic climate of the firm, whether the right people think you’re indispensable, whether you are judged in the abstract as “capable of bringing in business,” etc.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        Yes, and Kathleen Sullivan (linked) is an exception because she focused on the first amendment, which is useful to corporate clients, and IIRC she kept her hand in litigation while a prof and a dean. Your typical property or civil procedure (or even antitrust) prof can’t cash in like that.

        • Denverite

          I don’t disagree. In fact, if law profs could move in between private practice and academia, I think a lot more would. It doesn’t take many years at high six figures/low seven figures before your kids (and maybe your kids’ kids) are set for life.

          Just wanted to caution against using absolutes.

        • KS

          Yeah, and most law professors aren’t former deans of Stanford Law School and weren’t considered a potential Supreme Court nominee. Kathleen Sullivan is atypical in more ways than one.

      • Tristan

        It’s just that it’s HARD to make partner at a biglaw firm, and it depends on a lot of factors totally out of your control — economic climate of the firm, whether the right people think you’re indispensable, whether you are judged in the abstract as “capable of bringing in business,” etc.

        All of that applies to jobs at every income level. Pardon me if I shed no tears for those who have to ‘settle’ for low six figure incomes.

        • Philip Arlington

          The point being made is that most law profs would fail. That is not something they wish to acknowledge, and far too often their pretence that most of them could succeed goes unchallenged.

          • BH

            Most people who go into BigLaw ultimately “fail” –if not making partner is the definition of failure. So, you could expect that if current law professors had taken the chance to climb the ladder, most of them would have failed, too. But starting out, everyone has (in theory) a chance at “success”. No one can pinpoint who will be successful, so graduates with great grades who go to firms can be portrayed as (fancy themselves as) potential winners. Law schools draw away people who have records that would get them into BigLaw or other prestigious jobs. These people forego a chance, not a certitude. It is not really about how people who have spent 20 years doing one thing would fare should they be forced to try to do another thing.That would be tough for most people. It is really about that initial decision when everyone, in theory, has a chance to succeed in other endeavors (not just firms) that would be more remunerative or rewarding in other ways.

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  • Denverite

    Also, just to give everyone some idea how much kids cost early on, we have three in a (I think) medium-cost city (Denver isn’t NYC, but it’s not Houston either). We’re a two income family. We pay per kid:

    Childcare: $15k per year from ages 1-4, $8k at age 5 (full day kindergarten is a lot cheaper than daycare/preschool), $6k after that (afterschool care plus summer).

    Food: This is tough. We pay about $500/month in groceries, but we also eat out a lot more than we should. Figure $750 a month in groceries if we cooked as often as we should. Assume 2/3 of that is the kids (they eat a lot more than we do, especially the eldest). That works out to $2k per kid annually.

    Health insurance: About $500 per kid over what we’d pay if we both had individual policies through our employers.

    Out-of-pocket health costs: It fluctuates, but I’d think another $500 per kid annually (though we admittedly have accident prone kids).

    Transportation: I’d say that half of our driving is kid-related. We don’t drive much, though, maybe 5000 miles per year. So figure $500 per kid annually in gas plus depreciation.

    OK. That works out to $18.5k for kids before they’re in kindergarten, $11.5k when they’re in kindergarten, and $9.5k after that. Say you’ve got two little ones and a school-age kid (to use my example). That means you are paying $46.5k on child expenses. That amounts to a bit more than 60% of your post-tax income at $100k. (Note: That assumes both incomes tally up to $100k — if it’s just one, then obviously you can avoid a ton of the childcare costs if one spouse is willing to stay home.) That’s not including discretionary expenses lime entertainment, travel, or the fact that you’ll probably need a bigger place to live with the extra kids.

    I guess my point is that $100k sounds like an astronomical sum to most people, but if you’re a two income family with several small children, then it’s really not. Once you pay to care for the kids at work, feed them, and get them to school/daycare, most of the money’s gone right there.

    • DrDick

      Yet most Americans manage to cope with that situation on roughly half, or less, of your $100K.

      • Denverite

        Again. Not our income.

        But to answer your point, the average household size in America is roughly 2.6 persons — so about half of the size of a five person family. So maybe it might make sense why the average American household can cope with half as much income?

        • DrDick

          Based on this chart, it would appear that it is not much if any different for 5 person families.

          • Denverite


            This shows that the median income for an American family of four is about $75k (and using the LIHEAP formula, $87k for a family of five). It also shows that LIHEAP eligibility threshold for a family of five is about 50% higher than for the hypothetical 2.6 person family. (Incidentally, LIHEAP is a wonderful program, maybe the biggest bang for the buck out there.)

            • DrDick

              I misread the chart initially, but $87K is still well below $100K, and half of all households of five make less than that.

              • Denverite

                Yeah (well, maybe not “yeah,” because I think “well below” is a bit of an exaggeration in this context), but that’s a national number. High cost states and cities are a good bit higher. For example, this suggests that the median five person family income in Colorado (which again, I suspect is medium-cost) is about $95k. New York and Illinois are similar. And keep in mind, those are statewide figures. I’d suspect that if you looked at Denver or NYC or Chicago specifically, it would be MUCH higher.

                In any event, the point is, when you look at five person families, the idea that the median income is $50k, and people making $100k are hugely privileged just doesn’t hold. In fact, a five person family with a household income of $100k is a little above the national median, and in the expensive cities, probably at or below it.

                • Hogan

                  Being able to spend $6-15K/year/child on child care and still eat out more often than you should, while being able to pay your other bills, sounds pretty privileged to me. Maybe not hugely, but my scale doesn’t calibrate that finely.

                • Denverite

                  Right. I’m pretty much done, but I thought I’d respond to this.

                  After seven years, we’re about eighteen months away from the sweet spot where childcare costs are minimal. During the last seven years, we’ve maxed out one high limit credit card, pretty much maxed out a 10% HELOC, and more-or-less exhausted our non-401k savings (as in, if one of us lost our jobs, we have maybe enough to get by for a month). For most of that time, we were doing so on non-lucrative salaries. (Think like a teacher plus a public interest lawyer.) We did so because there was a finish line in sight — when our youngest reached first grade, we would no longer be paying $30k or $40k or $50k in childcare costs. That’s coming up soon. Now it will be a mad scramble for a decade or so until college costs start.

                  So yes. We spend way too much money on takeout pizza and Chinese, and we do go to a restaurant maybe twice a month. Is that “privileged”? I guess so. It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

                • Hogan

                  Is that “privileged”? I guess so. It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

                  It often doesn’t.

                • Warren Terra

                  Oh, f’heaven’s sake, Hogan. Yes, Denverite is privileged compared to many Americans – perhaps even compared to the median American. But: Denverite is in a dual-professional household (postgraduate education of both partners), and by their description is paying market rates for standard, necessary services – no twee academies of the absurd, no dressage – and buying meals at cheap restaurants twice a month; plus, they’re going into debt to swing that lifestyle. This isn’t comparable to that asshole U. Chicago law prof complaining that no human being can survive on $200k/year. You over-interpreted some of their statements, and should have the grace not to attack them for it. Your general points are fine, and I agree with you, but you’re trying inappropriately to force Denverite into fitting those points, and you’re not really listening to what they’re saying.

                • Hogan

                  Yeah, there’s a good chance I’m not listening all that well, and this is a spot where I really should be. Sorry, Denverite.

    • quincy

      I have a friend in suburban Boston who spends $50K on child care for three young boys. He ran the numbers and the family nets about $8K more if he works rather than stays home with the kids. Seems ridiculous, but they still have $60K to live on after child care expenses and it allows both of them to work at jobs they enjoy.

  • Sebastian H

    But for nearly everyone below you on the ladder, you can change “most” to “all of the money is gone right there”. And they had to put the kids at that daycare you thought might be run by scary people, they might eat out once every other month, and they are living in a place with one or two fewer bedrooms. So for 80% or more of families, your 100k would be a huge step up.

    • Denverite

      Um, I was speaking in the abstract. That’s not our household income. And if you must know, we have five people in two bedrooms plus a tiny (8 x 8) interior den/office with no windows.

  • kate

    My take on this is that things have gotten so bad that even making it into the top 10% isn’t good enough to get you what was associated with a normal working class lifestyle (never mind middle class!) sixty years ago, which I figure includes*:

    * buy your own 2-3 bedroom home or flat with 20% down
    * live within an hour of where you work
    * safe schools performing at or above grade level
    * one car in an area with public transport or two cars in areas without
    * save for kid’s college & retirement
    * eat out once a month
    * two week local vacation each year

    There are a lot of areas of the U.S. where this can no longer be done on $100,000/year. In areas like San Francisco and New York City, one needs significantly more than that.

    * This list is based on my grandparents lifestyles, one with a high school diploma who repaired clocks, the other who had to drop out in 6th grade during the depression and worked in a now closed factory from the ages 16-65. P.S. He hated every minute he worked in that place. When I was growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was a cautionary tale about why we should all go to college. Now, people are nostalgic for those jobs!

    • Tristan

      My paternal grandfather, a butcher with no post-secondary education, owned a few acres and a house he built himself after immigrating from Germany, a defeated country, shortly before the Berlin Wall went up. It is literally insane that the people who oppose a return to the economic policies that allowed that are classified as ‘conservative’.

      • Philip Arlington

        “Conservative” and “liberal” are both words which should be dropped from public discourse because their meaning has been corrupted beyond recovery.

    • Philip Arlington

      Americans find it too easy to forget that there was only one country in the world where average people lived like that back then.

  • skeptonomist

    If someone is smart enough and selfish enough to figure out the tax dodge in the last paragraph, wouldn’t he/she be working in the private sector for big bucks?

    Professors who come up through the academic route starting at the bottom generally do not make big money. Those who do are brought in from industry or government.

  • SebastianDangerfield

    196 of 202 ABA law schools are “non-profits,” and therefore becoming a law professor, for legal purposes, counts as a form of public service work!

    Meanwhile, folks like me, who work for unions at below-market salaries, have to pay in full, as labor unions are non-profits that are expressly exempted from the “public service” category. What a wonderful country!

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