If Law Schools Lie, Students Aren’t Listening

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Class of 2007, USAF Academy Graduation Hat Hurray Toss, Thunderbird Fly Over
David Segal’s New York Times Article, Is Law School a Losing Game has touched a cord with many practicing lawyers and law students. Very broadly, David Segal, and the posts written in response, discuss the post-purchase regret law students feel after spending upwards of $120,000 for three years of law school. Without a guarantee of a job, let alone a good paying one, many graduates feel taken for a ride by their law school’s marketing offices.

Of course, students might as well blame David E Kelly and his portrayal of lawyers on tv. Certainly this is a glib retort. However, I doubt that more than 5% of law school applicants decided to pursue a legal degree based solely on the earnings potential. I have no doubt that the common perception of the well-off lawyer played a part. I just don’t believe it was the deciding factor in choosing to go to law school.

If told that there would be a good chance of earning less than $60k per year upon graduation, even less than $40k, I suspect few law students would be deterred from their chosen vocation. I have spoken to a number of law students who, even privately, refer to becoming a lawyer as “a calling.” There is nothing they would rather do than become an attorney. This is even before we get to those passionate students whose sole goal is to become either a prosecutor or public defender. When asked if they realize their future salary will make their law school debt an albatross they will carry for 30 or more years, they simply shrug it off.

The “it’s a calling” explanation is only part of it, of course. Like the lottery hopeful, standing in line at the gas station to buy a one dollar chance at millions, many law school students hope to be ones who will get six figure salaries in their first job. While there is an element of gambling to this, it isn’t foolish optimism. On the contrary, borrowing to increase one’s education has always been a good idea. Not only are law student getting a graduate degree, they are also joining the ranks of those permitted to practice law. A legal education and exclusivity of being able to practice law (despite the number of newly minted lawyers) make law school a good bet.

There is also the personality element. To make it through the grueling first year of law school, students have to be able to persevere and push doubt out of their minds. These extremely motivated and self-assured are likely to respond the their odds of landing a high paid job with Han Solo-esque, “never tell me the odds!”

Don’t mistake me for a law school apologist. If I had to do it all over again, I follow my own advice to law school hopefuls, and only go to local school to benefit from in-state tuition savings. However, that is the benefit of hindsight. I know that when I was starting law school, I had stars in my eyes that blinded me to the mortgage sized debt I was taking on.

For the lawyers out there, would the twenty-something you have changed his or her course if you have been told “the truth” about the legal market after law school?

Image credit: Beverly & Pack