Law school is a human capital investment, worth making (roughly speaking) if the benefits are higher than the costs.
Male lawyers earn, on average, more than female lawyers (e.g. here). But that does not mean they get a higher return on their legal education. The pay-off to going to law school is the increase in earnings relative to the next best alternative. If the next best alternative is serving ice-cream, then law school may still be a worthwhile investment, even if it does not guarantee a six figure salary.
The picture below shows the human capital investment decision graphically:
The picture shows the human capital investment decision for two groups, the Reds and the Greens. The groups pay the same tuition fees, so face the same direct costs for law school. However, because the Greens have lower earnings, they sacrifice less employment income during their three years of law school. The indirect costs of law school are lower for Greens.
Law school pays off in terms of higher earnings - for Reds, the benefit of a law school education is the area between the two red lines, representing earnings with and without a law degree. For Greens, it is the area between the two green lines. I've drawn the diagram so that the lower earning group, the Greens, actually gets a higher pay-off from their investment in education than the higher earning group, the Reds, because they do so poorly without a legal education.
The parallel with gender is straightforward. Male lawyers earn more than female lawyers. But men who are not lawyers also earn more, on average, than women who are not lawyers. Thus it is hard to know, without more information, which gender gets the highest pay-off from law school.
Why this sudden interest in law as a human capital investment? In Canada, law school tuition fees - like almost all university tuition fees - are government regulated. In the last few years, the Ontario government has allowed its law schools to rapidly increase tuition fees, while other provinces have put more restraints on fee growth. Consequently, the amount a student can expect to pay for a JD varies dramatically across the country. Basic tuition fees at Canada's better law schools range from $28,791 at University of Toronto and $21,592 at Osgoode to $5914 for non-Quebec Canadian students at McGill, and a measly $2,224 for McGill's Quebec students.
The variation in tuition fees complicates the human capital investment decision. Is it worth paying almost $75,000 to go to University of Toronto rather than McGill? Is there any reason to expect male students to prefer the expensive, University of Toronto option, and female students to prefer the cheaper options, or vice versa?
That second question matters to potential students because law school is also a marriage market: when young people are thrown together for long periods of time under conditions of extreme stress, stuff happens. It might be a minor and trivial factor when deciding which school to attend, but all else equal, it is not a bad idea to pick the law school where the supply of potential partners is sufficient to meet the demand.
I'm not which gender is more likely to opt for a high tuition school over a low tuition one, given a choice: men or women.
Here's one reason to believe men will be more willing to pay high levels of tuition: the partnership jackpot. US data suggests that, even at entry level, legal salaries have a bimodal distribution. A comparison of median and average salaries in the US and Ontario reveals that the income distribution is skewed, with some people - especially some men - making large salaries. Confirming this, calculations based on 2006 Census data for Ontario suggest 7.7 percent of male lawyers earn over $500,000 a year, compared to 2.4 percent of females.
It's not easy to make partner. I suspect, but I don't have evidence, that going to University of Toronto, which is regarded (by itself, at least) as the top school in the country, and which has strong ties to the large law firms on Bay Street, increases a person's odds. If people merely believe that going to University of Toronto helps a person secure a top placement and get on the partnership track, that will be enough to tilt anyone who wants to make partner towards U of T.
What's the connection between the partnership jackpot and gender? Men are more likely to become partners in large law firms than women are, perhaps because women face systemic barriers to achieving partnerships, perhaps because men are more willing to work the outrageously long hours it takes to make partner, or perhaps because women care less about money and status, and more about having some degree of work-life balance.
Men also tend to suffer from "overconfidence bias" - at least in traditionally male areas like investing or management - to a greater degree than women. Even if men are no more likely to make partner than women are, they may well believe they have a greater chance of making partner. That could be enough to induce them to sign up for the best possible school, regardless of cost.
It's worth realizing, too, that human capital can be a very risky investment. Even at University of Toronto, which is so proud of its placement rate that it publishes it on-line, 5 to 10 percent of the class have not secured an articling place by June. To the extent that men are less risk averse than women, one would expect them to be more likely to willing to make a costly investment in tuition, gambling on their future success.
But it must be emphasized: all of this is speculation, without any supporting evidence at all. There are all sorts of counter-arguments that could be made; reasons to believe that tuition levels will have no effect at all on the gender composition of law school.
First, all of these considerations may be infra-marginal. The pay-off to going to the best possible law school may be so large relative to tuition costs, that tuition may simply not influence people's decisions about where to go at all.
Male LSAT test taker get slightly higher scores, on average, than female LSAT test takers. This suggests that men will be slightly more likely to be admitted to the more competitive schools, and the ones that place a high weight on LSAT scores when making admission decisions. This effect alone could swamp the impact of tuition increases.
Second, considerations of risk aversion and confidence could work the other way, pushing women towards University of Toronto and men towards other schools. In an increasingly tough market, there is likely to be a "flight to quality" or "flight to safety". Students will go for the schools that are seen as safe options, that offer the best chance of securing some kind of decent employment after graduation, regardless of tuition levels.
University of Toronto is the only law school in Canada to offer a post graduate debt relief program. If earnings fail to live up to expectations, a portion of the students' loans will be forgiven. This, too, makes U of T appealing to the risk averse.
Third, for some students, parental contributions can cushion the impact of high tuition fees, making tuition levels a less important decision. For others, not so much. The real impact of high tuition on the composition of law schools may well be on the socio-economic background of students attending, and not the gender mix.
In short, I don't know if or how rising law school tuition levels will affect the gender composition of law schools - and I don't think anyone else does either. Which makes it a perfect subject for a speculative and largely fact-free blog post.