Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Unintended Consequences at Harvard Law School: Could Free 3rd Tuition Reduce the Count of Women Law Partners?

Harvard Law School has announced that it will waive the 3rd year of its tuition (a short term savings of $40 grand) for people who promise that they will enter public service for at least 5 years. Some question: who will take this offer? Liberal students will be more likely to accept this deal. Will women at HLS be more likely to take this offer? While I have no evidence for this claim, my intuition is telling me that the answer is yes.

So, suppose that you are smart woman at HLS and you accept this offer. After 5 years in public service, can you join a fancy NYC law firm and 8 years later be promoted to partner? I doubt it. Starting a family and other life considerations would also affect possible transitions here.

If women have a higher probability of accepting this new offer then men, and if once you pick this path you can't return to the private sector and make partner then my proof is complete that an unintended consequence of this new policy will be to reduce the number of women from HLS who get promoted to partner at the fancy NYC law firms. Other law schools are likely to imitate Harvard and so this policy could have "macro" consequences. Is it a big deal if fancy NYC law firms do not have many women partners? Some measure gender progress by whether such convergence does take place.

Now , you may counter that these women weren't at the margin. You might say that the liberal women who want to enter public law were never at risk to go to NYC and join the prestigious firms. You may be right but this subsidy doesn't help.

New Harvard Law School Tuition Waiver

A behavioral economist might also say that the pursuit of saving $40 grand now in waived tuition may lead too many hyperbolic people to choose public law!

It is certainly possible that a subsidy for public service furthers society's goals but it would interest me whether the Harvard Deans thought about whether the new incentive program would have differential effects by gender and political ideology? Who is most responsive to this new incentive? Whose behavior will not be changed by this incentive?