Earlier this month, Above the Law's Elie Mystal provided his personal perspective. A snippet:
I graduated law school in 2003, owing Harvard University just under $150,000. At the time, I had no idea what starting my professional career $150K in the hole would do to my life. I figured I'd work hard, make money, and I'd pay my loans out of my general non-disposable income funds -- kind of like my cable bill.
Seven years, two careers, numerous deferments and defaults, and one global economic meltdown later, I still owe a ton of money. Now, however, I pay it to various debt collection agencies and lawyers. When prospective landlords run a pro forma credit check on my application, they come back looking at me like I've been convicted of multiple war crimes. Every raise I'll ever get will be eaten up by the collection agencies until sweet death allows me one everlasting and satisfying default. And, oh yeah, I don't even want to practice law anymore -- I quit my Biglaw job because, despite the debt, I really wanted to have a job that I enjoyed. So I essentially purchased a $150,000 disposable good. My time working in Biglaw was kind of like a very expensive vacation that I debt financed.
Note that even with a Harvard degree and good job in a large law firm, he regretted the debt load. To me, the most poignant sentence is this: "despite the debt, I really wanted to have a job that I enjoyed."
His perspective is interesting and helpful. Read the whole thing. He closes:
Hey, if you are in law school already, you've got to do what you've got to do. But I really hope prospective law students are paying attention. You don't have to fork over this much money for a degree that isn't nearly as lucrative as you've been led to believe.Sage advice.
Don't we all long for a job that is fulfilling and enjoyable? Unfortunately, students entering law school have never practiced law, and many are absolutely blind to what it's really like. And when that law school education, on which they bet the farm, turns out to be a path to a boring and stifling law practice, most wish they had opted for construction work.
This is not to say that law practice is boring and unfulfilling! If you read this blog you know that I believe that law has the potential to be a high and useful calling, and that God calls men and women into the law to love their neighbors, to vindicate the rights of the oppressed, to assist others in fulfilling their own callings, and much, much more. Yet not every person is equipped for or called into law, and in the current environment, getting into law school is a lot easier than paying for it once you get out.
In short, if you feel the call to law school, think it through and take it slow (recall that a recent survey found that 21% of law students regretted their choice to go to law school). Make sure you're all in before you go. Here are a few suggestions toward that end. Take 'em or leave 'em.
1. Make the effort to find out what practicing law really is. Shadow a lawyer. Take a pre-law seminar. Read one of the million or so books describing the legal profession. Since it goes without saying, I won't insult your intelligence by mentioning that you can't get a good idea about the daily reality of law practice by watching legal movies and TV shows.
2. Set your post-graduation expectations on jobs you really think you will enjoy, regardless of the salary. Evaluate what you will do if you graduate in the bottom half of your class or don't get your dream offer upon graduation.
3. This may be the same as #2, but don't get sucked into the all-the-smart-and-cool-kids-are working-for-big-law-firms mentality. Explore your options, but don't take a job because all the guys on the football team are doing it.
4. Shop around for a quality legal education at a good price. If possible, find a law school that will give you a scholarship based on your GPA and LSAT score. Unless you are sure that you are Supreme Court clerk quality or a future law school dean, a free education at a good third-tier school is usually preferable to a $150k investment in a Harvard diploma with a job you don't want.
5. Pray and seek counsel. If you believe law is a calling, not just another job, then don't be afraid to test your desires through wise friends. And knowing the Caller is the best preparation for any calling.
If you want to read more on law school debt issues, see the ATL pieces on the topic, this item and this one in the ABA Journal, and some of the posts at the Empirical Legal Studies blog, particularly those discussing the relationship of the starting salary trends and legal education. In addition, check out the new Law School Survey of Student Engagement Study, which among many other interesting findings, notes that 44% of law students expect to graduate with more than $100,000 in debt.
By the way, the LSSSE Study is pretty interesting for other reasons as well, such as findings on student involvment in co-curricular activities and student groups, interaction with professors, etc. I hope to weigh on some of that later.