Declining Number of Women Law Graduates

(ps.  Thanks for the interesting comments. I should add, the thing that caused me to write this post was because I thought it was odd that in asking about most things related to decisions to go to law school, or not, gendered or not, I’d certainly want to ask how the increasing tuition and student debt loads factor in. Maybe they don’t, but it’s certainly something I’d be asking about. The original article talked about the profession and the nature of the profession, but didn’t mention the costs involved in getting there in the first place.)

I read Vivia Chen’s article, Women Spurn Law School, at the Careerist (h/t TaxProf) and wanted to ask a couple of additional questions.  Here’s some of the numbers Chen cites (I’m skipping over some useful charts; read the whole thing):

Among the top ten law schools, the one with the lowest female enrollment is NYU (42.6%), while the highest is UC-Berkeley (52.9%), the only school to break the 50 percent mark … what’s surprising is that women’s enrollment at law schools overall has been on a steady decline since 2002, when women constituted about 49.05% of law students. The ABA’s newest statistics show that women made up about 47% of all first-year law students for 2009 to 2010, and 45.9% of all law school graduates. The all-time high was in 1993, when women’s enrollment bumped just above 50%.

Chen interviews some sources, who suggest that part of the issue is the perception of the lifestyle in the profession – the difficulties of making work and family mesh in law firms, for example.  On the basis of zero information, however, I wonder whether the Higher Law School Education Bubble is not also at work.

How would one test the following as a hypothesis? As tuitions have gone up and law school debt has increased, young women might be making the decision on the front end that the cost of legal education is not worth it over the long run, in relation to career benefits.  The issue is not the profession – it is, rather, whether the long tail of law school debt repayments justifies the upfront expenditure.  If it is the case that many young women looking at the law school decision are also thinking about marriage, family, and children, if law school tuition and attached debts rise high enough, they might conclude that despite the professional opportunities (which have shrunk considerably since 2002), the debt is not worth it in terms of family cost.

If they are projecting forward to their future selves, they might well conclude that if they plan on a household net income rather than an individual one, it maximizes the household unit to marry a lawyer rather than become one.  It is also true that having a profession and a job, even if one decides to seek a mommy track at least for some number of years, provides a crucial cushion in the form of a second income.  But the benefit of that cushion might turn out not to be worth it, on some women’s calculations, if the cost rises so much that, in effect, the law school debt is a burdensome and undischargeable insurance premium against the loss of the spouse’s income.

If any of the above were true – and I have not the faintest idea or data – one might expect this to show up more as an effect over the next few years in mid-tier schools, rather than the top ones.  In the top schools, the bet that one will find a high paying job and perhaps be able to pay down a significant amount of law school debt before hitting the moment at which family issues become more important, is much more favorable to the student.  In mid-tier schools, particularly as things like lower paying but more stable government lawyer jobs get taken up by higher tier school graduates, the bet is much more iffy.  There are counter-vailing possibilities to this hypothesis; they include that students at mid-tier schools believe that they have fewer other options and so a riskier, higher volatility bet is still worth it; that might well be changing, however, in this altered job market.

I don’t know and don’t want to be read as taking a position here.  It is merely that in forming explanatory hypotheses, we should take account of the front end calculations that women might be making regarding law school, in relation to the increasing cost of legal education – and not simply in relation to the not-at-all presumable job at the other end.  The job is much less certain.  But even more, I wonder whether women are making a calculation about what the long tail of student loan debt might mean in relation to their anticipated household incomes.

And further (to go back to a really quite remarkable set of comments logged to an earlier post of mine on the social effects of student debt ) to ask if  they are thinking, again on the front end, whether having such student loan burdens decreases their opportunities in the marriage market.  I would not discount that final possibility at all, even though it is purely a hypothesis.  Purely anecdotally, I have sensed a shift in the last ten years among my women students who come to me to ask for career advice.  I wouldn’t dream of soliciting information about their family, marriage and so on plans – even though that definitely makes me less helpful in career guidance. But I have noted how my students today take it for granted that of course they want to discuss that, otherwise what are they talking about?

These women students – much more than the men – appear to me to think far more than my students did a decade or more ago in terms of their future families. They don’t think it weird or even “realistic,” but merely a reflection of who they are and what they want.  It wouldn’t at all surprise me (if that kind of shift in thinking among the elite young women of excellent undergraduate schools whom I teach is broadly the case) if their peers who have not yet reached law school were thinking about exactly that – but in relation to the question of whether to go and incur the cost at all.  I think they project in terms of future households, and the calculations involved in reaching a future household.

To take a conversation I had a year or so ago, in the way of career guidance for a young woman law student, she said flatly – I had asked what ideally she wanted to do with her career – that her career goal was to become a federal government lawyer in some commercial area, with a steady, secure income and benefits.  I was about to say, well, in this job market, that’s a pretty sensible goal – but she plunged ahead before I could get there.  Without even pausing, she went on … and to marry someone who was a lawyer, or some kind of professional in the private sector, who would work longer hours, bring home bigger paychecks, and take bigger risks, underwritten by the security of her job.  I asked about her career and whether she was maximizing that; she said she was interested in maximizing her life.

Naturally she was one of my top students in law and economics that year.  But push her forward to this discussion before law school, and she would be exactly the sort of intelligent and rational student who would be intuitively estimating the cost and benefits to her future household, and to the opportunities of being able to create that household.  Which in turn might lead her to conclude that it wasn’t worth it, when integrated with the costs and benefits of the marriage market.  So I wonder, particularly in the case of law schools not in the top 20-25, whether the most sensible and intelligent young women at this very moment might turn out to be those who … forego law school altogether.

Of course, I could be wrong on the basis of this kind of anecdote. But I am surely not wrong in thinking that the relevant questions of why young women might be foregoing law school involve the high cost of legal education and the student debt long tail.