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Earnings Inequality and Coordination Costs: Evidence from U.S. Law Firms, Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization


Earnings inequality has increased substantially since the 1970s. How much does this reflect decreases in coordination costs that allow individuals to better exploit returns to skill? We provide evidence on this question using confidential Census data on U.S. law offices. We first show that earnings inequality among lawyers increased substantially between 1977 and 1992, and that the distribution of partner-associate ratios across offices changed in ways consistent with the hypothesis that coordination costs fell during this period. We then propose a "hierarchical production function" in which output is the product of skill and time and estimate its parameters, applying insights from the equilibrium assignment literature. We find that coordination costs fell broadly and steadily during this period, such that hiring one's first associate leveraged a partner's skill by about 30% more in 1992 than 1977. We find also that changes in lawyers' hierarchical organization account for about 2/3 of the increase in earnings inequality among lawyers in the upper tail, but a much smaller share of the increase in inequality between lawyers in the upper tail and other lawyers.




Luis Garicano, Thomas N. Hubbard

Date Published



Garicano, Luis, and Thomas N. Hubbard. 2018. Earnings Inequality and Coordination Costs: Evidence from U.S. Law Firms. Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization.


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