Sep 7, 2010

Is a law degree worth the cost and risk?

As a lawyer, I follow the legal industry, and my favorite legal blog, Above the Law, actually bills itself as a "legal tabloid." One constant theme is how much it sucks to be a lawyer right now, especially an unemployed one. And another recurring theme is how much it sucks to be a law student right now, with worse employment prospects than the fourth-year associate who just got laid off. Here's a recent example: UCLA School of Law (arguably the most prestigious law school in LA) recently sent around a job listing to students that was for the position of chauffeur to an entertainment lawyer, the pitch being that you could talk to him about his job while you were driving him around to his various appointments. At least when I was a student, the law school tried to help students get hired as law clerks or externs doing real legal work.

Last week, Above the Law discussed whether a student entering his second year should quit before incurring more loans. (The gender of the student isn't disclosed so for simplicity, I'm going to assume he's male.) The student in question goes to a top eight school, has decent but not stellar grades, thinks he would enjoy public interest law, already has $70,000 in student loans, and is convinced he would graduate with $170,000 in debt. The editors gave the pros and cons of staying in school, but I thought what was really interesting was what was missing from the discussion: deciding whether you really want to be a lawyer and if so, how to make it happen.

For example, if the student really wants to be a prosecutor or legal legislative work, then continuing with law school is the only way to make that happen. Or maybe he really wants to be an entertainment lawyer - he's still going to need that law degree. The fact that he is at a top law school indicates that he is bright and is likely to pass the bar exam, be considered for interviews, etc. Especially if the student is willing to relocate for his dream job, then I think someone bright enough to go to a top law school would be able to get the position. At the very least, he will be able to get some position in his chosen field.

That leaves the money question. Crystal at Money Saving Mom often writes about how her husband was able to make it through law school without incurring any debt, but I don't think that's realistic for most people. Tuition and fees at the law schools in Los Angeles is about $40,000 per year. I don't know if it's even possible to come out completely debt-free if you go to a relatively respectable school and don't have a whole lot of money coming from somewhere other than loans, such as savings, a spouse, or a job.

Speaking of a job . . . that's something most law students don't have, and understandably so. I didn't, for the first two years of law school. First year grades in particular are so important that most students don't want to have distractions from studying. But the student we were discussing is already a second-year, and could conceivably hold down a job if he was serious about limiting the amount of debt he graduates with. Even ten hours a week would bring in some income.

And of course, there's the big one - lifestyle. To be honest, back when I was in law school, I didn't have a full grasp of what it means to live within one's means. And most of my peers seemed to be the same. But a frugal lifestyle could significantly reduce the total amount of loans at graduation.

Just as important, a frugal lifestyle after graduation will ensure those loans are paid off relatively quickly. Most loan programs allow for 20 to 25 years to pay off your student loans. But if you follow the proven debt-reduction techniques like the debt snowball, you can cut that time by half or more. These are all things that should be taken into consideration when deciding on a future career path, whether it's the law or something else.


Carrie said...

my best friend just graduated law school this year. she's working for our local district attorney's office and apparently after 10 years of government work (which is what she wants to do) her loans will be forgiven

Camille said...

I have a law degree and the gigantic (and I do mean GIGANTIC) student loans to go along with that degree. I am currently a SAHM and am not even licensed (I should really take a bar exam just to have the license)! I agree that I have no idea how you would go to law school w/o any debt. But I also agree that when there, I didn't have a grasp on living frugally and I certainly could have cut expenses.

While I often look at that loan debt and groan, I also feel that law school provides an EXCELLENT education (even at a tier 3 school where I went). That degree has helped us in so many ways in life. Worth the cost? Not sure. Hopefully in the future!

My advice to anyone wanting to go to law school: go part time and work full time (or part time). Or go to the school that offers you a big scholarship. They do exist mostly at tier 3 or 4 schools, but it's worth it in my opinion. No one cares where you went to law school after landing that first job.

I also read a newspaper article yesterday that said when the economy recovers, skilled workers like lawyers and engineers will be in higher demand.

Chief Family Officer said...

@Carrie - That's definitely something to take into consideration. Thanks for pointing that out!

@Camille - No reason to put yourself through a bar exam if you're not 100% certain you're going to practice. Part time is also a good idea, but at least in CA, you have to finish everything within five years - so you don't get that much of a break in course load by going part time, and it probably costs more, with summer school and all.

Plus, I don't know about lawyers being more in demand. There are so many of us out of work and not by choice right now.