Brian Tamanaha to the law school world: “Never mind”

Well so much for that, then. Brian Tamanaha has conceded that indeed Simkovic and McIntyre are right about the positive net present value of the lifetime earnings premium secured by holders of a JD.

He reached this conclusion only a few days after publicly proclaiming their work to be “faulty,” “misleading,” “not true,” having only “the external trappings of precision and rigor,” a “puffed up exaggeration,” a “brazen bluff,” “sloppy,” “slanted,” “ad hoc,” “compromised,” “chest-pounding,” “full of holes,” “dubious,” “hell bent on proving a law degree pays off,” “flawed,” “fudged,” “distorted,” with results that are “substantially overstated.”

But he has now suddenly proclaimed:

“Their study has convinced me that I was wrong to exclusively focus on the short term–the long term return at the 25th percentile is better than I would have guessed (assuming the validity of their numbers).” And, “ignoring the long term was my error.”

Well, as Emily Litella would have put it, “Never mind.”

While Tamanaha seems to feel some regret at his unjustified and unprofessional remarks, he actually repeated the claim that the Simkovic and McIntyre paper was “sloppy” in the course of apologizing for it in comments at TaxProf.

Seriously?

Their research was reviewed in advance of its posting on SSRN by a large array of respected senior scholars in law, economics and business. It was also peer reviewed prior to its acceptance at the American Law and Economics Conference held at Vanderbilt earlier this year, prior to its public posting on SSRN. As a test, without telling the authors, I wrote to one of those reviewers who, in fact, is a fan of the work of Tamanaha and asked him for his view of the research. He sent me the copy of the comments he originally sent to the authors in which he concluded their paper to be “very careful and well done” although he reserved judgment on whether what is happening in the market for JDs is “all cyclical or at least partially structural.” This is hardly the reaction of a reader who believes the work he is considering is sloppy much less faulty or misleading.

Of course, the problem for Tamanaha, who is the author of a widely read book that claims the law school as an institution is failing based largely on anecdotes and very limited data, is that a conclusion that the NPV for JD holders is indeed positive deep into the left side of the distribution is the entire ball game in this debate. If Simkovic and McIntyre are right it means that, indeed, for the vast majority of JD holders there is an earnings premium for attending law school and receiving the JD, relative to going through life with just a BA. It also means that this premium has held up despite the effect of downturns in the wider economy.

And, of course, as Simkovic and McIntyre found, the earnings premium has turned upward already for the cohort of JD holders they tracked including all graduating classes from 1996 to 2008. In other words, the premium held for a group that includes a large number of relatively young JD holders and suggests that, indeed, what we have been experiencing was cyclical not some structural effect that somehow is hitting JD’s but is having no impact on BA-only holders.

Having held up a white flag, Tamanaha attempts to suggest now he really didn’t mean to call into question every law school and every law student only those at the “very bottom” who attend “risky law schools.” Well, no one in this debate has ever said the JD had positive NPV for every graduate of every law school no matter where they ended up in the class. So for Tamanaha to now say that he is in fact only concerned about a narrow “band” of law schools is more than a little disingenuous. He boldly proclaimed in his book’s very first pages that “law schools are failing abjectly in multiple ways….The economic model of law schools is broken.” His book was called “Failing Law Schools” not “Risky Law Schools” or “Very Bottom Law Schools.”

As I explained in an earlier post about the significance of the Simkovic and McIntyre paper, an institution that can produce graduates who achieve the kind of results they demonstrate is not, by any measure, a failing institution.