Time for another round of Come Up With Two Good Reasons to Justify the Time, Trouble, and Expense of Law School. The rules are simple, you need two reasons, and they need to be good.
Why did I go to law school? I got a full scholarship to law school, so the only cost to me is the loss of three years of earnings. No small cost, of course, but not the three figure student loan cost that most people have. I enrolled in law school nine years (and one useless-but-fun Masters degree) after undergrad. I worked for most of that time in Human Resources, making half what the other managers at my company made. Once I graduate, presuming I get an offer from the firm I’ll work for this summer, I’ll make more than double my old salary. I’ll work only a handful more hours (as an HR Manager I rarely worked less than 60 hours a week, for the privilege of $40k a year with no bonus and 2% yearly raises). And it isn’t my life’s dream to be a lawyer, but neither was Human Resources. Might as well make good money while slogging away in an office all week long, so at least I can pay for a maid and an occasional vacation, and for my kids to have good childhoods and some semblance of a college fund. My life’s dream, which was to work in the arts as a manager of a nice-sized theater company in a medium-sized city, is untenable in this recession. Since I do have kids to feed, I am skittish about ever trying to enter that field again, since arts budgets are always the first to go, and a salary that is dependent on charitable giving is never guaranteed. I don’t have the brain for engineering, I can’t face getting a PhD in order to work in academia, and even if I had the affinity to be a doctor, I don’t have the prereqs. The only other field I considered was nursing, but I chose law because I’m not sure I have the emotional fortitude to manage the death and misery that many nurses deal with on a daily basis.
However, if I’d had to pay out of pocket for law school, I absolutely would not go. Much as I enjoy it – and I do, finding it considerably easier and more flexible than my management job, with lots more opportunity to hang out with my two small children – it would not be worth paying full price for. Also, I would not have written so chipper a message to you if I didn’t have a solid summer job at a great firm in a city I like that has real prospects of turning into long term employment. *I’m positive that my management experience helped me there – I don’t think law school is a great place for fresh-out-of-undergrads.*
So maybe, since law school is free for me and I probably have a job already, this is cheating the question.
Sincerely, G, 2L at a school in the South ranked in the 40s PS – I very much enjoy your writing.
1. It’s Free
It’s not free. I don’t just mean in terms of opportunity costs. If you only got full tuition, there’s still the issue of room and board. But you’d have to eat and pay rent either way, so this isn’t a real cost of law school, is it? Not really, no. But, if you took out loans to cover your living expenses, or relied on credit cards, the interest you accrue is a cost of law school. If you had been working, you’d be paying those bills with cash on hand, not with debt. Unless you have very favorable terms and pay off your loans quickly, law school may have increased your living expenses from 50-100% for three years. Ouch!
And of course there’s other expenses, like text books, study guides, notebooks, pens, highlighters, post it tabs, whiskey, gifts for professors, cap and gown rental, bar exam study materials, bar exam fees, bar application fees, and a gun license. Unless your scholarship covered your living expenses and included a stipend for all the ancillary costs, it wasn’t actually free.
Then, as you noted, there’s also opportunity costs. $40,000 a year, with no bonus, and 2% yearly raises comes out to $122,416. That is a big fracking expense. Assuming the firm you’ll summer at pays its summer associates the same rate as first years, which you put at about $80,000, and assuming the program runs 10 weeks, you’ll get to deduct a little over $15,000 from your opportunity costs. Still well over $100k.
The cost of a “free” law degree makes the cost of a “free” printer actually look like a good deal.
But, all this discussion is actually beside the point. The reduced price of going isn’t a reason to go. All it does is lower the bar for how good your two reasons need to be. A good reason for getting a $10,000 degree might not hold up for a $100,000 degree. But, simply being offered $10,000 instead of $100,000 isn’t a reason to go.
2. It Beats Human Resources
I’m guessing you couldn’t just start a band on the side and play at local hotels, or have a microbrewery in your back yard. You know, the way other HR types make their lives worth living.
If you don’t think you can handle the psychology anguish nurses suffer from dealing with the misery of others, what makes you think law is a good idea? How will you handle that twelve year old who go paralyzed after being hit by a drunk driver, or the couple going through a bitter divorce, of the family hoping to save their home from foreclosure? Unless you’re dealing entirely with corporate clients, in which case your days of interacting with human beings are over, your job is largely to manage the misery of others. People rarely seek legal counsel because their lives are going to swimmingly well.
It may seem like law gives you more flexibility with your schedule than your HR job, but you’ll soon learn the realities of being held hostage by court schedules and last minute deal changes. Clients are whiny brats, and they want their issues handled immediately. The partners you work for are the same way; they don’t care that a contract doesn’t even need to be finished for another two weeks, you need to put your life on hold and work until 2am every night until there’s simply no work left in the office. And then, you can pack your bags, because you’re laid off now that there’s no work left.
As for the money, there’s no guarantee you’ll get that job after graduation, and no guarantee that you’ll keep it for long if you do get it. Law jobs are as secure as the weighted average security of the clients’ jobs.
You need to consider that the median starting salary for full time working lawyers is $72,000. This means half of the people working as full time attorneys make less than that. Now consider that only something like 60% of graduates get full time legal jobs (I’ll see if I can dig up the data, but I think this number is right). The vast majority of grads who are unemployed, working part time, or working in non-legal jobs are getting far less than $72,000. this means that somewhere around 70% of law school grads earn less than $72,000. Odds are this will include you, even if you do get a sweet summer job.
But, let’s assume you beat the odds and get the $80,000 job you mentioned. (And, there’s no way of knowing what summer job you’d get when you enrolled, so we’re no longer in reasons to go, but just reasons why it might not have been such a big mistake after all.) It looks like after just 3 years of working, you’ll have made up for the opportunity cost of foregoing three years of income.
Not quite though. Remember, taxes are progressive. $80,000 is not twice as much as $40,000. So, instead of three years to make up for the lost income, it may take 4 or 5. Doesn’t sound to bad. But, this is only if we measure opportunity costs in terms of dollars. You also gave up three years of experience and seniority. If you spent those three years working, and looking for a better job, there’s a fair chance you’d either be promoted internally, or find a better place to lateral to.
While law may have looked like a good move to find a better, and higher paying job, the far more reasonable option would have been to see what jobs you were qualified for that didn’t first require a three year break from the workforce.
So, what’s the final score? One non-reason, and one pretty bad reason. Definitely short of two good reasons.
[Do you think you've got two good reasons to go to law school? E-mail them to email@example.com and I'll tell you why you're wrong.]