ABA To Potential Law Students: Do You Like To Eat?

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.

14 thoughts on “ABA To Potential Law Students: Do You Like To Eat?

  1. D-Day

    Blame this on Ayn Rand and the Austrian school of economics whose market-based influence has finally come of age. Lawyers produce nothing except reams of useless paper and tons of hot air. They fail to contribute to the GDP. They like to divide up the pie and keep the largest piece for themselves. The Italians have an expression for this which I cannot spell. No sympathy here.

    Out-of-work lawyers can always go into the marketplace and get a real job like the rest of us peons. Or better yet, marry a good legal secretary who can support you and your bad habits. You can go into the “arts,” a good landing place for disgruntled, discouraged and distressed professionals. Maybe comedian!

  2. Mark Draughn

    I think your advice to the ABA–stop accrediting law schools or limit the number of seats–would make it even worse for law students. It might raise lawyer earnings by reducing the total number of lawyers, but it would also remove any remaining competitive pressures on the law schools. If you think law school tuitions are high now, wait until they don’t have to worry about students fleeing to other schools.

  3. SHG

    Don’t be naive. Competitive pressure is based on ranking, not cost.  There’s no competitive pressure to keep costs down until you reach Tier III and IV, and then only because they’re viewed as crappy schools with zero potential for employment.  If they raised their ranking, they would play Hoover and suck every dime out of their students they possibly could.

  4. Aaron G

    The worst part is that it seems so many of them end up in law school not because they really want to be lawyers and have a plan to get there, but because they just figured they were smart enough and lawyers make comfortable livings. The problem is, most of them are very smart, but they lack passion or have no clue why they came to law school, the result of schools overselling the JD. And that’s in the first tier — forget about the third tier schools pumping out JDs left and right.

    @D-Day, your comment makes no sense.

  5. SHG

    Don’t mind Doriss Day.  He’s usually relegated to the spam folder, but sometimes he’s amusing, even if incoherent.  Think of it as my tip ‘o the hat to the blind squirrel.

  6. AlliG

    The worst part of this is that the smartest wannabe lawyers will probably start making this calculation and choose another path. A loss for the legal profession and its future clients.

    Here’s something the ABA could do: require accredited schools to disclose employment stats in a way that would satisfy the ethical obligations its students will be held to as lawyers.

  7. Aaron G

    While they should definitely require accredited schools to disclose real employment stats, I highly doubt it’ll fix the problem.

    Most students either ignore the employment stats because they know they’re bogus, or only use them as a factor in determining which school to attend.

  8. Aaron G

    The tuition problem has little to do with law school competition — in fact, it has little to do with law school at all. Tuition for post-secondary, graduate and professional degrees has spiraled out of control in the last ten years (A semester in 2002 was $2300 in-state undergrad, in 2007 it was $4700). This isn’t the result of competition, and state schools don’t run on a market-based model anyway.

    Besides, Top 100 schools aren’t competing with third and fourth tier schools.

  9. Justin T.

    Here’s an idea: make the law schools co-sign the student loans. They’ll be a lot more hesitant to let in any Tom Dick or Harry who gets higher than a 155 on the LSAT if they know that they’ll be on the hook if the student fails to accomplish financial success in the job market. And speaking of the LSAT, it needs to be harder. I’ve heard it said before that the MCAT decides IF you’re going to go to medical school, whereas the LSAT decides WHERE you’re going to go to law school. Put some math on there; that’ll weed out some of the people with good intentions but who lack the math skills required to understand what they’re getting into. Even the GRE has a math section.

  10. Justin T.

    I seriously think a significant portion of the “don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life-so-I’ll-go-to-law-school” law students choose law school over other postgraduate fields specifically because there is no math involved. Why learn or re-learn math for another field when you can choose law school and not have to crack a textbook? Coupled with the notion that lawyers lead comfortable lives, it becomes a much more attractive option for the wandering postgraduate.

  11. Mark Draughn

    I’m sure I am naive about law schools, but what you’re saying only slightly changes my point. You’re still asking the ABA to cartelize the legal education market, and that’s going to reduce competition. If they currently compete on quality instead of price (assuming that rankings are a proxy for quality), then these changes will make them stop worrying so much about quality. After all, why bother to improve your rankings if you’re already filling every seat the ABA allows you to have?

    It probably wouldn’t affect the top of the top law schools, but you can bet it would affect budgeting decisions lower down. As for those schools at the bottom which do compete on price, unlesss the ABA actually shut them down, your plan would still allow them to raise prices.

    By the way, I’m not so naive as to not notice that by limiting the number of new lawyers, your plan increases the value of already being a lawyer. I’m not saying you’d profit directly–I doubt the noob lawyers are your competition–but it would sure help out the transactional lawyers who make their money on routine legal matters to have fewer entry-level competitors. The problem is that it would help them at the expense of consumers, without actually improving the quality of lawyers.

  12. SHG

    You’re trying to apply supply and demand to professional services as you would to widgets.  Widgets are fungible. Lawyers are not.  Make it financially nonviable to practice law and the people you would want to practice law are doing something else to feed their family.  You would have lower costs, but you would similarly have nobody practicing law you would want to be your lawyer.

    As for law schools, there will always be enough warm bodies to fill as many seats as they can shove into classrooms.  The problem there will be that the seats are filled by people who would otherwise be asking if you want sprinkles on your cone. 

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