A comment on my post Not Covered by LSAT Prep takes exception–quite respectful exception–to my statement that “If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.” The poster writes “such a statement may be easier to make in retrospect than prospectively. According to your bio, you graduated in 1981.” His point is that in the century since I graduated from law school the cost of legal education has risen faster than wages and inflation, and it is much more difficult to pay back student loans on a law graduate’s average salary now than it was then.
I’m sure that’s true. I see that reality in the pressures facing my oldest son, who is a 3L, and in students I’ve mentored over the years. A friend who graduated law school six years ago owed more in student loans for college and law school than the outstanding balance of my home mortgage. She is one of the fortunates who landed a BigLaw job at what was then the highest starting salary in Boston because she is smart, talented, incredibly hard-working, and proved herself while working as a law student.
The increasingly-skewed relationship between the cost and economic benefit of law school education only reinforces my point about doing due diligence. My mantra for the dozens of prospective law students I mentor each year is get life experience, investigate whether law is a good choice for you, and consider the enormous commitment of time and financial, psychological, and emotional resources law school requires. The profession is filled with unhappy lawyers. They can be unhappy because they don’t make enough money, or their practices are stultifying, or they are worn down from years of arguing, or they don’t like their clients, or they think they would be happier raising goats in Maine. The legal profession suffers disproportionately from alcohol abuse. Why would any sensible person enter this profession without assessing honestly how well it fits them?
And why would any sensible person enter law school without assessing honestly their chances of success? The Wall Street Journal article that prompted my prior post discusses the tiered nature of the legal profession. There are the few who finish at the top of their classes and garner BigLaw offers, but they are the exception. The income gap between the high and and low-paying poles is enormous. If financial necessity dictates that you start at $160,000/year when you graduate and your historic academic performance suggests that you won’t be among that top ten percent (or fewer) of the Type A personalities who will dominate your class, you need to ask “what am I doing?” You need to revisit your expectations. Note that I’m not saying don’t go–that admonition applies to those who don’t do the due diligence and make the risk/reward calculation. But don’t count on a payoff and define success on terms that are likely to be unattainable.