To anyone who’s graduated from law school in the past few years, read a blawg or can walk and chew gum at the same time, the evidence is overwhelming that becoming a lawyer will not guarantee you wealth and success. Yes, mommy lied. Get over it.
The American Bar Association has finally decided to bring up the rear. warning Muffy and Buffy that law school isn’t as sweet a route as it once was. To begin with, they have just figured out that law school isn’t cheap.
Obtaining a degree from an ABA-accredited law school is not cheap. Over the last twenty-five years, law school tuition has consistently risen two times as fast as inflation. Consequently, the average tuition at private law schools in 2008 was $34,298, while the average in-state tuition for public law schools was $16,836. When one adds books and living expenses to tuition, the average public law student borrows $71,436 for law school, while the average private school student borrows $91,506. Many students borrow far more than $100,000, and these numbers do not even include debt that students may still carry from their undergraduate years.
And, they add, it’s not likely to get any cheaper. At the same time:
Many prospective law students are already familiar with the steep price of a legal education. What many do not know, however, is that these costs often exceed the expected return on their investment in the job market.
For those who couldn’t stay awake through their economics lectures, this isn’t a good thing. As investments go, it’s generally preferred that they earn more money than they cost.
Although numbers are not available yet, many members of the class of 2010 and 2011 may graduate without a job, and those who are lucky enough to find employment likely will collectively have lower salaries than their predecessors. In short, the job market is more challenging than it has been in many years, as well-paying jobs are in short supply.
So when they’re talking about cost exceeding earnings, they really mean unemployment. Generally speaking, an income of zero is never something to strive for, no less invest in.
In a section entitled “The Bottom Line,” a very cute economic reference for those who didn’t catch it, they conclude:
Thus, many students start out in a position from which it may be difficult to recoup their investment in legal education. Even students who do ultimately prosper over the course of a career face difficulties from high debt loads during the beginning of their career. High debt can limit career choices, prevent employment in the public service sector, or delay home ownership or marriage. In short, going to law school can bring more financial difficulty than many law students expect.
Buried in there is the good news, that people too stupid to figure all of this out are unlikely to marry and thus procreate, saving us from generations of lawyer welfare, a cycle no society can endure. But there’s the positive spin to the otherwise ugly story.
The lack of financial return, of course, does not mean that it is not valuable to go to law school. Many lawyers receive intrinsic benefits from a satisfying career that cannot easily be quantified. It does mean, however, that students should think twice before going to law school simply for the money. All too often, students who bank on reaping a positive financial return from law school lose out.
The point isn’t novel, that law school can be a fine place to go if the purpose is to actually become a lawyer rather than to gain wealth and success without suffering the late nights of med school. Of course, even those young lawyers who truly want to practice law share a common need with those who are only doing it for the money and prestige: They like to eat.
Missing from this otherwise well-worn analysis is the harsh fact that the cost of three years of law school (which, remember, is only going up because, well, law school is a cash cow for universities and law students are foolish enough to keep coming and paying with the blessing of student loans), plus the opportunity costs of three years sitting in a classroom listening to lawprofs who disdain the actual teaching of law in favor of critical scholarship based on the Harry Potter series, does nothing to produce a career that can feed ones children.
Even if you really, really want to be a lawyer, your kids are going to want to eat. Every day, And they’re going to expect you to make enough money to feed them. Loving the law is nice (no, really it is), but if those who love being a lawyer can’t earn enough money to both pay off their loans and feed the kids, then we have an institutional problem and some very hungry kids.
As thoughtful as it is that the ABA has finally decided to hop on board the train that left the station a couple of years ago, nowhere in its warning does it mention its role in this dilemma. Too many law school. Too many law students. Law porn enticing the foolish to come closer to the rocky shoals with deceptive numbers of happy and wealthy graduates produced by kindly deans who need to bulk up their numbers to cover the cost of flights to lawprof symposiums on how to make the law students’ experience happier.
The ABA has the power to require law schools to put a surgeon general’s warning on their brochures: Attending law school could be harmful to your financial health. They don’t. The ABA could stop authorizing new law schools, because maybe there aren’t enough starving lawyers already. They don’t. The ABA could restrict the number of seats available through the accreditation process. They don’t.
The analysis offered by this warning, sadly, fails to address a more pressing problem within the profession, that there are already a large pool of lawyers who are drowning. Practicing lawyers aren’t earning enough to support their debt and, even worse, feed their children. This is the ugly little secret that few really want to admit; Many lawyers would rather pretend their doing great than concede that they are dying out there, desperately praying that the phone will ring today and bring in a case that will cover their nut and maybe, just maybe, leave enough left over to pay the credit card bill for those Christmas presents.
They’re sitting around scratching their heads, wondering how they can be such good, dedicated, caring lawyers, and can’t make enough money to survive. You think it’s not happening? What do you think is driving so many lawyers, filled with bravado, to put on their hot pants and walk the boulevard? Whining about their desperation isn’t going to win them any business, but they sit in their lonely offices wondering what went so wrong with their plans and dreams that they can’t manage to feed the kids.
Maybe the ABA will form a committee to study the problem and come out with a white paper on the pressing issue of starving lawyers. Now that they’ve solved the law student problem, they’ve got the time on their hands. Plenty of free time.