Saturday, June 26, 2010

Would You Put Law School on Your Credit Card?

Someone close to me is considering law school after studying economics and sociology at a name brand east coast college. What would you say?

My usual advice to prospective law students is, "Don't split the baby. Shoot for a top ten school, and if you don't make it then attend the best school can for free." I feel, however, like warning about what I call the sub-prime student loan market, where borrowers (students) are leveraged to the hilt with the help of private lenders, despite the students' total absence of apparent immediate income. Rather than common sense, the market operates on the principle that loans can be secured by an educational asset that everyone tacitly agrees will increase in value. No matter how many people get law degrees, and no matter how expensive they become, the degree will always out-value the debt liability.

Law schools aren't helping. Call any law school and ask about their graduate employment rate. Any school -- including ours -- will give you a number that our guts tell us is not accurate. Ask about median starting salary and again you will get rosy numbers we all know are false. Lenders have no incentive to be any more helpful -- recall that statutes rendering student loans immune to discharge by bankruptcy essentially nullifies lenders' risk. And with student loan rates at about seven percent (the cost of a credit card six years ago), they are making a killing. And absolute killing.

The refrain goes like this: "Oh, but law school is about education; it is about deeper understanding of our social and political systems." Well, maybe. It is also about a career. I don't really understand why so many academics resist the idea that legal education is a trade education by insisting on calling law a "calling" or a "profession," especially given that their actions are so much to the contrary. Schools of late are paying firms to hire their graduates. They are flagrantly manipulating their grading scales to make their students appear better qualified than students from 'competing' schools' (ours included, by the way). Students aren't likely to complain -- the vast majority of us want a job first, and a 'deeper understanding of our social and political systems' second. Again: we may want an education, but we all need a job. None of this is in the admissions brochures or in a college career counselor's pamphlets.

I don't know what to say to my friend. On the one hand, I loved law school and I would do it again in a heartbeat. My three years at Boalt Hall have been some of the best of my life. On the other, I'm (probably) in the minority on that point.

So, what would you say?

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know. I work with a couple of paralegals who were considering various law school options this year. All of them chose the most economical ones, which I think is good. But I think all three of them are going to law school because they can't think of or are not brave enough to figure out another career path. They certainly don't seem very interested in the law stuff (at least big law stuff) from my perspective.

6/26/2010 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's very hard to answer your question without knowing more about your friend. Whether it's a good idea for someone to go to law school depends on what they want to do after law school, what schools they get into, how much they're willing to gamble on their own academic performance, and probably most of all what it is that appeals to them about law school (stable source of money, deeper understanding of social and political systems, chance to make the world more just, three years to take it easy, etc.). You probably want to protect your friend's privacy, but it's such a big question that it's hard to answer without more info.

I don't feel remotely as positively as you do about my time at Boalt Hall, but I also don't have the opposite feelings. Probably I'm in the majority on that point.

6/26/2010 3:33 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

My advice to young law wanabees is the advice I should have taken myself: if there is anything else you think you might enjoy more than being a lawyer, take a couple years and TRY IT before saddling yourself with this much debt. Cause after that, the door on alternative career choices is pretty much closed.

Sure, there are plenty of options for repaying your loans--as long as you choose a school with good job prospects and a strong LRAP--but those options are pretty much all in the legal field. You aren't going to break out and try acting, or something, when you are that much in the red. It's not possible. So don't go to law school until you are absolutely sure you want to be a lawyer for the next ten years, at least.

Also, at this point, I would advise waiting out the economy a bit. While it's fairly likely things will be back to decent by the time incoming 1Ls start the job search, the entire model of legal employment seems to be shifting, and I don't think anyone is sure where it will end up. Plus, considering that the most important part of the job search occurs during Fall of your 2L year, people who start now don't have all that long to see what happens with the economy before they meet it face-to-face. I think waiting another couple years until the dust settles couldn't hurt.

6/27/2010 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my time at boalt was also 3 of the best years of my life. i'd do it again too if it were free; no way in hell for what next year's classes will be getting taxed.

6/27/2010 2:53 PM  
Blogger Jackie O said...

I see a lot of kids with LSAT prep books and I have to control myself not to approach them and say "noooooo! go be free!"

But seriously...

I ask prospective law students if they desperately want to be lawyers and actually practice law (and if they know what that means). I'd echo Dan's comments that a lot of people (me included) don't really appreciate before attending law school that you're essentially making a commitment to a profession for 10 years. If someone wants badly enough to be part of that profession, then go for it. If you have any doubts whatsoever, go do something else for a while and think about it.

6/27/2010 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I could go back in time and advise my 0L self, I'd probably tell 'em not to go to law school. But my awesome summer experience may be slowly changing my mind on the legal profession...

While my debt is crushing, I definitely think Berkeley is a sound investment. I think I could get a job that would allow me to live comfortably and pay off my debt (either through LRAP or through $$). But that much debt really limits my options a lot in the next ten years, and its not clear to me how much I'm going to resent that. And I don't just mean being confined to legal jobs (and yes, the range of legal jobs are very diverse). I probably couldn't afford to work part time. It would be tough to live on some lo bono salaries, or even some small market firm salaries. LRAP covers public sector stuff, but still restricts how I sequence my career (if I were to work in the private sector for three years and then get the government job of my dreams, no LRAP), and under the new combined IBR program, it isn't much of a deal unless you stick to the public sector for 120 months.

Three years ago I worked way less, traveled several months every year, and made enough money to live comfortably. I don't know if I could have done that forever, but I'm not sure I traded up.

6/29/2010 6:39 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Here are my two cents as someone who took time off AND transferred to Boalt.

TAKE TIME OFF. Dan's right. I took four years off, worked for three of them in professional theater and one for an attorney. I was READY to go back to school. I wanted to go back to school. I actually ENJOYED going back to school (scary, I know). While I have many good friends at Boalt and my former law school who are K-JD, it's not the best idea. Why? Because you get burnt out and don't want to work. Also, it's hard to have a clear idea of what the real world is like. How much money do you need to live (I had no idea after undergrad when I moved to NYC)? What are your priorities? The standard legal profession career trajectory figures out a lot of this for you (I sure could live easily on 160k and my life will be figured out when its spent sleeping under my desk), but there are a lot of other options.

As for what law school to go to. Just going to a Top 10 is a little myopic. When I applied to law school I looked at my options as great national schools and great regional schools (of greater and lesser degree). I chose to go to a great regional school in CA because that's where I wanted to practice. I transferred to a great national school to open up my options. Debt is a whole other ball-game. Would you go to Loyola or Santa Clara (not knocking them) over Georgetown or USC or UCLA because the former threw you more money? Especially given how horrific the legal market actually is right now? Plenty of my friends at my former law school are struggling to find work. Shit, I'm struggling, but at least I've got a leg up. But, then again, debt is so individualized it's hard to make a blanket statement. It's got to be cost-benefit in the end.

So the wrap up? Don't go to law school now. It's not about find anything you can do but law (that's what they told me about theater and I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now). There's a shitload you can do with a law degree, but get some perspective first. You should WANT to go back to school, not just do it because there's nothing better to do with your life.

As for schools to go? Don't discount great regional schools if there's a particular place you want to work. UCLA, Hastings, Fordham, BU, BC, all great schools, all will get you jobs in that particular area (in a better economy at least). Finances are so personal there's no real way to give blanket advise.

6/30/2010 7:59 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

My only regret about going straight through is how many people feel like they have the right to comment on how that was a terrible decision. For *me* going straight through was the right choice and it's very much something I'm glad that I did. So I think the TAKE TIME OFF OH MY GOD RUN WHILE YOU CAN advice is alarmist. People need to think *for themselves* about whether they will benefit from time off, what they will do with that time, and if they really want to be a lawyer. I went to law school because I actually want to be a lawyer, and lo and behold that seems like it is strongly correlated with happiness in school/work.

6/30/2010 11:12 AM  

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