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Would You Advise Your Child to Take on $150k in Debt to Go to Law School?

by Carolyn Elefant on August 27, 2010 · 26 comments

in MyShingle Solo, Solo Practice Trends

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Yesterday, I received a call from one of my blog readers, somewhat out of the blue.  A rising 2L at a top tier school, the student explained that he was interested in learning more about the feasibility of starting a law practice right out of law school.  Yet as we talked more, however, it seemed that the student had another, more basic question on his mind: whether to go further into debt, to the tune of $150,000, to obtain a law degree or to cut his losses.  And then he posed this question to me:

Knowing what you do about the today’s economy and job prospects in the legal market, would you have gone to law school?

For me, answering yes was fairly easy for a couple of reasons. Foremost, I really like  practicing law. Corny as it sounds, I cherish my law degree and revel in being part of a profession that, as imperfect though it may be, is also comprised of amazing people with amazing stories. After twenty-two years in, I still get a thrill when I step up to the podium to argue an appeal. I still marvel that a lowly solo like myself can do stuff that matters, whether it’s preventing a multi-million dollar pipeline company from condemning my clients’ property (and winning attorneys’ fees to boot) or helping a financially troubled homeowner hold on to his house just a little bit longer or just showing up. Most of all, I’m amazed that with nothing more than my law degree and stubborn persistence, that I’ve been able to build something – a law firm out of thin air and on my own terms.

But I also recognize my bias in answering my reader’s question. For starters, I’m the kind of person who makes the best of things and doesn’t like to dwell on any regrets. And yes, as my critics claim, I’m prone to being annoyingly positive, if only because a cheerful attitude, even if occasionally deluded, is far preferable to wallowing in perpetual and debilitating despair. Finally, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been fortunate: I worked for five years before starting my firm (albeit in jobs that paid modestly), so by living frugally I was able to make a dent in paying off my own $70,000 in loans. Today, even that route isn’t an option for many graduates.

So to try to shed a more objective light on the question, rather than look back on, and justify my own choices, I’ve asked myself how I’d advise my own daughters if they wanted to go to law school. Would I tell them to take on $150,000 in debt with no guarantee of a steady job, and to jeopardize not only their own future financial stability, but that of their children as well?

The truth is, it’s hard to say. I suppose I’d start by suggesting that they avoid or limit debt to begin with, either by finding ways to work through school or perhaps choosing a less expensive law school that wouldn’t limit their opportunities. Then, I remind them that choosing law as a path to financial stability isn’t so much an option as it was back in my day.

Still, if my daughters are committed to practicing law or have a feeling, after exploring other options that it’s right for them; if they’re passionate or excited about the prospect of serving clients – solving their problems and changing their lives or seeking justice and if they’re willing to be absolutely dogged in doing whatever it takes to succeed, then I’d tell them to go for it. I think.

And now readers, it’s your turn. Would you do it all over again if the economy was the way it is now? And would you encourage your kids to go to law school? Comments are open.

  • guest

    heck no.

  • Jb

    Like you I would encourage them to avoid debt if possible but if they have the calling to practice law (and perhaps I'm old fashioned but I do believe it's a calling) then they should go for it.

  • Guest

    No chance I'd do it again.

  • Gr

    Just curious what kind of comparable career you would advise your daughter or son to go into if NOT law, assuming she has an aptitude for the profession but isn't necessarily “called” to do it. I can't think of anything that doesn't require at least a bachelor's degree, and these days a bachelor's just isn't enough. Everyone wants at least a master's degree, or two. There are plenty of worthless master's degrees out there that people spend the same amount of money on. Yes, the law job market is tough, but aren't most job markets that law-school type people would enter?

  • Staxnet

    no

  • Staxnet

    and no.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Yes – calling is the word that I was looking for – though at the same time, I don't consider law my calling. I do love what I do, but I feel that writing, rather than law is my calling. Still no regrets.

  • http://blog.alligerkman.com Alli

    I definitely agree that I would recommend mitigating the financial damage. Along those lines, I've also been a big promoter of evening programs.

    I always encourage people to work for a few years after college before signing up for law school. I think this could cut back on a lot of mistakes that are made when grads go just because they aren't sure what else to do.

    And if the aspiring law student tells me they figure, “you can do anything with a law degree,” I don't even try to talk them out of it. They're already a pitcher deep in Kool-Aid.

  • http://twitter.com/SCartierLiebel SCartierLiebel

    Carolyn, calling or not, I'd advise my child today to only do it after a careful cost-benefit analysis. And if they were still hellbent on being a lawyer, then there are many ways to go to undergraduate school/law school today, and many more options will be made available precisely because of this economy. Soon one will be able to do so without going into such crippling debt after the law schools are no longer getting students hiding out there for three years believing the economy will change upon their graduation.

    It's an investment and to not weigh the pros and cons, like any other investment is simply foolish. If someone else is footing the bill – go for it. If it's all on your shoulders, no scholarship or benefactor, you better be working through school and have a true actor's passion – nothing else but law will do for you and you will do whatever is necessary to practice.

    When I decided to go to law school I knew I wanted to go to law school for a variety of reasons, not just a passion for the law, but a passion for the education and what I could do with the degree. I also really wanted to learn about the law simply to navigate through life's complexities. It also made economical sense, but I was also ten years out before I returned to school. Ironically, I went to law school with no intention to practice and by my second year knew I very much wanted to practice and loved practicing for the 13 years I did, hanging a shingle right out of law school, never employed by another as a lawyer.

    But I'm starting to be of the mindset of Bill Gates – it's not WHERE you learn (physical presence on the campus of a Top Tier law school), but WHAT you learn that should matter most when it comes to job prospects and one's professional future. And law is no different. If one could spend three years learning at the feet of the practicing masters at a quarter of the cost and then sit for the bar, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so?

    I really think in this new economy Gates' vision will take hold. And I strongly believe the law will be no exception.

    So, would I advise my child to become a lawyer in this economy? Only if he had a real passion for it and a cast-iron stomach for the uncertainty. He'd also have to know in his bones that he could make a pitcher of lemonade out of a bucket of melons!

  • Regina

    No, unless they went to an inexpensive school, or a school with very good employment rates. Even the top ten schools are having trouble placing everyone in a job these days.

    The price of law school has out-paced the return on the investment. Having 150-200K in debt at 27 is not a good start on life.

  • Han Solo

    As a student what you don't realize when you're in school is what a massive fixed cost $150k in debt is on your monthly budget afterward. I've been self-employed since law school and the debt service on my law school loans is over 25% of my monthly budget. That's being married with 3 kids, 2 cars and a renting a 3-bedroom house in the 'burbs, and our single biggest expense by far is the loan payment. In fact, I can say that in most respects our quality of life was actually better during school (of course it was, look at all the financing they provided).

    Now, I can say that the student loan people at my alma mater have been very accommodating when things get lean. That said, a lot of days I feel that by graduating with so much debt I was thrown from the boat into the lake with a millstone tied to my ankle. In particular, I remember a surprisingly forthright letter from the dean announcing a huge tuition hike my 2L year, which said it shouldn't be a concern because the school's starting salary figures were so high. “Look we see that a lot of you are going to make $145,000-$160,000 working for BigLaw so don't worry that we're raising tuition by nearly 10% this year.” Tuition jumped up almost $3k every year. And if Stuffywhite & Crusterson goes from $148,000 starting to $170,000 that has no relation to the self employed.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    That is a hard a question. Personally, I do feel that there is some inherent value to a law degree, even in a quasi-legal job, like working on the Hill or doing policy work. The law degree is a value-add, but not so much of a value-add to justify the extra costs, if they're substantial. I think I would also encourage my kids to work through law school to keep their debts down – for example, in my sister's case, she had a social work degree, then decided to go to nursing school, but her job was flexible enough that she didn't even have to cut back to part time until her last semester, so she didn't incur much debt. I would also like to be able to help my kids pay for law school if that is what they want – though I realize that is even less of an option for others.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Unbelievably, law school applications are STILL on the rise, though. It would be interesting to know whether those who are now matriculating to law school have lawyers as parents (in which case, they really should know better!) or perhaps, their parents are not part of the profession, and a law degree is still viewed as prestigious and offering job security.

    Of course, if the ABA begins to accredit foreign law schools, I might encourage my kids to consider that route – foreign schools are surprisingly less expensive than here, and I certainly would not mind having a reason to visit Europe or India!

  • http://www.facebook.com/LegalWordsmith Corinne A. Tampas

    I was a building contractor in California before I was a lawyer. I used to say that being a builder supported my “lawyering habit”. Of course, now that option as a money making proposition is further down the toilet than the practice of law.

    I think that in today's economy everything is a struggle. The one advantage of being a lawyer is that you can be self-employed with very little overhead.

    Think about it: if you are a rocket scientist, and no one is hiring, you are either unemployed or retraining for another line of work; if you are just starting out as, say a dentist, you will still have $150K in student loans PLUS the need to purchase dental equipment in the range of $300K (I know because I have built many dental offices for dentists) PLUS rent on a large office; and, if you are a building contractor as I once was, you will be throwing yourself at the mercy of bankers in a futile attempt to negotiate the mother of all loan modifications for any ongoing construction projects.

    As a lawyer, my biggest investment was my education and with a computer, Internet connection and membership to a good law library, I'm pretty much in business.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Corinne,

    You make a good point – a law degree does offer a built in job option. When I speak about starting a practice in today's economy, I also make the same point- starting a business is going to cost money, and by that metric, law school, even at $150k is a bargain (see this slide show – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeC2ImkjrNM) I've seen articles in the newspapers about middle level managers – just kind of generic BAs or MBAs who were laid off in this economy, and they had a tougher time getting back on their feet than lawyers who could at least more readily start a practice, even in the interim.

  • http://www.facebook.com/LegalWordsmith Corinne A. Tampas

    Carolyn,

    Great slide show (as always)! It brought to my mind one of the great cons of Big Law:

    So many of my friends worked 80 hour weeks and participated in vicious office politics just to “make partner”. What they did not realize when they made partner was that they were buying into the “opportunity” to help pay the firm's bills and/or pledge collateral for the firm's loans. When the economy went over a cliff in late-2008, banks would not extend those loans, payroll had to made, and cases still needed to be tried.

    I'm not about to put my fate in the hands of some crazy old senior partner under those kinds of circumstances!

  • Vincent

    To answer the basic question, I'd say no. Don't take the debt. Find a lower tier school that will be happy to have you and provide you with scholarship. If I had it to do over again I'd have taken the scholarship to a 4th tier school instead of the $100k in loans for a top 20 school. For the solo I don't think the name on the degree is worth much. It might get you into some big firm if that's where you want to be, but if you want to hang your own shingle, pick the location and the school with the local rep and the lower cost.

  • http://www.timeforlifenow.com/success-roundtable-program-for-lawyers/ Sonia Gallagher

    This is a really good post and discussion on a really hot topic right now. The legal industry is going through very big shifts right now and lawyers are realizing that seeking to be partner is not all they thought it was cut out to be.

    Being a lawyer myself and having had the opportunity to run my own firm, I’d tell my children (not born yet) to go to law school if they have ideas and plans on how they can take the skills they learn and either start their own firm or transition into another career. It’s essential for people to think this way right now because there are more students graduating from law schools each year and less jobs available. Having a plan B and an entrepreneurial spirit is definitely going to help law students who are graduating soon and have no job prospects. It doesn’t help just graduating law students. Thinking this way also helps lawyers who’ve been working for a firm for years and then get laid off. Seeing yourself as an entrepreneur is key for developing business for your firm (and not just surviving) or for your employer’s (protecting your current position).

  • anon

    Well, as a 3L looking at this job market, I warn everyone that can hear me to avoid law school. I have no comprehension of what people do that were self financed and went to private schools the WHOLE way through- grad and undergrad. 7 yrs x 40+k…

    There is some new legislation, CCRA, that benefits students after 2007 by controlling monthly loan payments relative to income, and by offering loan forgiveness after a decade+ in public interest work. So you can start a nonprofit in addition to a solo.

  • anon

    Also, there's a pretty huge difference in student debt v business debt. They aren't the same at all, or in bankruptcy, and aren't that analogous to justify thinking of a law degree as a business investment.

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  • Attykimw

    I would hesitate to recommend to my girls to choose the path of law. When I entered the law I firmly believed I would work full-time even after having children. When my first child was born I went through a complete metemorphosis. After taking several years off, I am now trying to build a part-time practice from home but finding that the law is very demanding and not really conducive to raising children. Maybe I can find a way to make it work and THEN I will recommend this career choice.

  • Etudetutor

    Dear Corinne Tampas: I searched for tags with ‘building contractor’ & lawyer. Here’s the story: A close friend decided against law school while in his 20’s. He became an owner/builder after he fired & sued the original contractor whose work would have resulted in my friend’s house collapsing.
    Recently, at the urging of his family, in the face of a lingering incomplete building project, he took the LSAT-did amazingly well, scored well above the 90th percentile. In 3 years at age 53/54 he could have a law degree. He is reluctant. His lawyer-friend stated “it’s a terrible time to go to law school.” I forwarded your posts and the slide show. I don’t understand his resistance.
    Cheers

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  • Abort mission

    Absolutely not. I had a promising and rewarding career before going to law school. I am now in debt over my head and poorer than I have ever been in my life. I just told my wife that we could not buy a $60 fake Christmas tree because we can’t pay rent this month. And I’ve been practicing since 2007, with bar licenses in both CA and OR. Don’t do it!!!!!!

  • CP

    Can someone please elaborate on this concept of running my own nonprofit in addition to a solo law practice, so after a decade I would qualify for the loan forgiveness program on the outstanding balance of my student loan?
    I am a first year law student and my goal is to go solo upon graduation.

    Thank you.

    CP

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