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A brief note on Michael Simkovic’s white whale

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Michael Simkovic, who co-authored an article that claimed to demonstrate that getting a law degree increases the average law graduate’s lifetime earnings by one million dollars discounted to present value (the article does no such thing), has developed something of a mania about Noam Scheiber’s Times piece last week on the struggles of recent graduates of low-ranked law schools. Simkovic has written a verging-on novella length critique of Scheiber’s piece, while demanding that the Times run corrections etc.

Throughout this, Simkovic has behaved toward Scheiber with a level of unearned arrogance and sheer pomposity that once again raises the eternal philosophical question of whether Harvard Law School is an asshole factory or magnet. Here he is lecturing Scheiber on Scheiber’s supposed inability to grasp the economic insights of Michael Simkovic:

Read this over carefully. Read my last two communications carefully. Read the materials I referenced. If you want, talk to professional labor economists who do empirical work in an economics department or a business school and who have no dog in the law school fight.

Note that while academic credentials per se shouldn’t be counting for much in these little spats, Scheiber is a Rhodes Scholar who has a Masters in Economics from Oxford. Meanwile Michael Simkovic once went to law school — whoops, “the” Law School, as they refer to it in Cambridge and environs. (Yeah his co-author on the Million Dollar piece is actually an economist, but arguing that “some of my best friends are economists” isn’t a very good look when you’re casting aspersions on the analytical abilities of somebody who actually has a lot more formal training in the relevant subject matter than you do).

Anyway, Simkovic’s obsession with Scheiber has apparently made it impossible for him to notice even the most glaring errors in anything that references the collected works of Michael Simkovic, JD. Simkovic cites approvingly to Steven Solomon’s piece in the Times responding to Scheiber, apparently without noticing that Solomon’s article has a huge statistical mistake at its core. Solomon:

The top graduates earn a median salary that will now start at $180,000, but that represented only about 17 percent of the reported salaries in 2014, according to data from the National Association for Law Placement. . . .

But let’s be clear. Only the lucky 17 percent of graduates earn salaries this high. To be in this group, you needed to go to a top 10 school or graduate in the higher ranks of the top quartile of law schools.

Things are harder for every other law graduate. Law firm starting salaries are bimodal — meaning that while 17 percent of graduates earned a median salary of $160,000 in 2014, about half had a median starting salary of $40,000 to $65,000.

In contrast to his awful 2015 article on the same subject, Solomon is trying to be fair and balanced here, but he’s getting his numbers all wrong, at a level that goes far beyond any purported errors in Scheiber’s piece.

Solomon treats “reported salaries” as the same thing as “law graduate salaries,” when those are two very different categories. As Deborah Merritt points out, only about half of law graduates have reported salaries, and those reported salaries include essentially everybody with a job that pays big law dollars (NALP reporting standards allow law schools to report salaries based on publicly available salary data, so new law graduates with big firm jobs who don’t respond to their schools’ salary surveys will still have their salaries reported). The result is that Solomon is over-estimating the percentage of 2015 grads with market rate salaries by approximately 97.7%.

Either Simkovic was so blinded by his anger over Scheiber’s failure to interview or at least cite him that he failed to notice this mistake — which is far more egregious than anything Simkovic even accuses Scheiber of making — or he noticed it but decided he shouldn’t say anything about it, since Solomon, unlike Scheiber, had the wisdom to cite Simkovic’s path-breaking, unique, unprecedented, and PEER REVIEWED study.

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