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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Go Away Young Man, Proximity to Local Law School Associated with Lower Incomes for Small Firm Lawyers

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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The Empirical Legal Studies Blog has a fascinating post on Regional Law Schools and Lawyer Income. Bill Henderson takes a look at average attorney earnings in legal markets in and around Indiana and comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion – “After controlling for all of the above factors, proximity to a local law school is associated with lower incomes for small firm lawyers.”

For example, in my sample of approximately 1,200 Indiana lawyers in private practices, lawyers working full-time in 1 to 5 lawyer firms in large metropolitan areas [see map below, click to enlarge] made an average of $112,712 (n=318), versus $117,284 in mid-sized markets (75,000 to 200,000 residents) (n=104) and $117,741 in small and rural locales (n = 84).

First he makes a standard distinction between lawyers who serve organizational clients such as corporations and lawyers that provide personal services to individuals and small businesses, reflecting two distinct groups with the smaller firms in the segment more likely to be ‘personal services’ firms.

So why are personal service lawyers making less money in larger markets? My working hypothesis is that graduates of urban law schools tend to stay in the area (indeed, many lived in the metro area before law school), thus oversupplying the region with personal service lawyers, heightening competition, and decreasing income. If this is true, it has important implications for so-called “local” law schools.

It is important to note, as Henderson does, that his study only applies to Indiana and doesn’t account for regional differences in economy, etc, but once the point is made it seems to make sense. I suspect that most prospective students don’t analyze the return on investment they make when they embark on their law school careers. Henderson conclusion focuses on primarily on how his findings might affect law school choice, he is a law professor after all –

Greater Chicago has eight law schools, including Valparaiso in the northwest corner of Indiana. In my opinion, before going $100K into debt, it is important for a prospective student to understand (ideally, quantify) the expected return on investment for each school if he or she hopes to practice law in the Chicago metropolitan area. The results of a larger study may persuade some students to pursue opportunities in other markets (or perhaps rural counties) or forgo law school altogether. As tuition continues to climb ahead of inflation, law schools–and the ABA–need to start thinking along these lines.

– I wonder, however, if these results aren’t more pertinent to recent law school graduates attempting to plot the early part of their careers? Debra Bruce, a lawyer coach here in Houston who also writes the Law Practice Management Newsletter of the State Bar of Texas and has experience at both the Big Law and small firm ends of the spectrum, encouraged me to think long and hard about practice area when I graduate. One of her suggestions was to think geographically and look for under-served populations. Sage advice that’s looking increasingly relevant at a time when urban legal markets are oversaturated while others are desperate to attract. It’s not a particularly easy thing to do in some respects. As our associate dean is fond of saying when he encounters students worrying about what effect not being able to take Sports Law might have on their legal careers, ‘chances are we’ll take the first job we get offered anyway.’

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Category: advice to law students, law practice, law school, legal careers

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One Response

  1. ‘chances are we’ll take the first job we get offered anyway.’

    — Far too sad and far too true.

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