Reasons to Go to Law School #11-12

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 nycbl1y@gmail.com and I'll tell you why you're wrong.]

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12 Responses to “Reasons to Go to Law School #11-12”

  1. John Says:

    Regarding your focus on opportunity cost (lost earnings): your logic can be applied to literally any other degree that you *could* have been working instead of getting. Should someone not get an undergrad degree in econ to go into finance (and be paid well) because they *could* have been a plumber (nothing against plumbers)? I get what you are trying to say (law school sucks, don’t go, you are losing money by going that you will never get back even if you got a scholarship; funny, I only hear this from unemployed people with JD’s), but just because law school forces you to not work full time doesn’t on its own mean you shouldn’t go. I think I have heard you talk about getting an MFA in lieu of a JD, do you think people work full-time while getting those?

  2. wlmingtonwave Says:

    I am really curious, what would you do if you had to do it all over again? You obviously are passionate about the legal profession/law school in some way. At the very least you care about it enough to write about it and do a podcast opposed to going on porn or watching reruns of sitcoms.

    While Phila Lawyer has the perspective of someone rehabilitated (from the legal profession) with a new perspective, you are very much still a junkie for such things.

  3. bl1y Says:

    wlmington: First, let me say that I did just get done watching a couple episodes of Friends (the one where Ross and Rachel hook up in the planetarium, and the one where Chandler and Ross go to Vermont). But, there’s only so much of that you can do in a day. I enjoy writing much more than I care about law, but law just happens to provide a lot of good material.

    John: Yes, every degree has opportunity costs. In fact, so do all jobs, and pretty much any decision you make. I never said that not being able to work means you shouldn’t go. But, it’s definitely something worth taking into consideration. Is the opportunity cost decisive? Usually not. Is it worth paying a butt load of attention to? Definitely.

    Also, many people getting MFAs are working, at least part time. Who do you think teaches freshman comp and creative writing classes? Grad programs that include work experience and pay drastically reduce the opportunity cost of going.

    Back to wlmington: If I could do it all over again, I think I probably still would have gone to law school, though perhaps I would have picked a school that I got a better aid package from, though it’s hard to imagine not having the experience of living in NY for 4 years.

    But, I also would have liked to have gotten an MFA in creative writing first. I was 20 when I graduated from undergrad, so I missed out on all the good bar hopping experiences. Having a year or two to mature before law school also would have helped me to get more out of it.

    And I don’t want to speak for Phila, but I wouldn’t describe him as rehabilitated really. I think he still wants out, but just hasn’t found a good alternative.

  4. wlmingtonwave Says:

    Hmm…that adds an interesting dimension to your blog I think. Thanks for sharing.

    Rehabilitated maybe is the wrong word–recovering? By “out” do you mean out of the legal profession or the “grind” of work in general. I was under the impression that he was doing something else non-legal related.

  5. bl1y Says:

    I think he still is a litigator, and wants out of both law and the grind.

  6. Bill Says:

    Law School seems to bite the big one. Why would any dude worth his salt spend 3 years there and wind up with squat?

  7. chris Says:

    Wow, graduating undergrad at 20 is impressive. That means you didn’t screw up academically ever, and a bachelors only took you three years. I on the other hand accomplished neither of those feats (Engineering is fun!), go me.

    This is probably the most persuasive series you have to get folks questioning the value of law school, but I am quite the lemming. Maybe I’ll submit my own two reasons soon, pretty sure you’ve debunked at least one of them already though.

  8. bl1y Says:

    Graduating at 20 isn’t that tough, probably more common than you think. I know I wasn’t the youngest person even in my section in law school, let alone the 1L class.

    I came very close to failing trigonometry, AP English, AP Bio, and AP US History in high school, so I’d say I screwed up academically a lot. My screw ups were just never too big. I also managed to do better on the actual AP test, and got college credit for each of those classes. (5 on English language, and 4s on English literature, Bio, and History.)

    So, combine starting with a bunch of credits with also taking some summer classes and graduating in 3 years becomes ridiculously easy. Also, extremely inadvisable if you’re on an honors scholarship at a state school, not racking up any debt. College is fun, why cut it short?

    And feel free to submit your reasons, even if you feel like they’re repeats. I’m running out of material here.

  9. AC Says:

    I’ve only read a few of your blog entries, so please forgive my uninformed perspective. I repeatedly considered law school as the “best” way to do something responsible, professional, admirable, and challenging with my life. I never made the jump for several reasons and don’t regret my decision. However, I’m struck by the coolness of your logic, that is to say that the poetic, more meaningful, side of life never seems to come into question (you may have such posts and I simply haven’t read them). In any case, why weigh one of the more important decisions of life based upon cool calculations of money or time or payoff? Will 80K or 200K make you happier than 40K or 20K? So you didn’t pursue an MFA – you can still write. Writers didn’t (and don’t) need a degree to justify their craft. My main point is that it seems to me that life built around logical decisions of “worth” will necessarily lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. What is the economic value of walking the dank, foggy canals of Venice after midnight or fly fishing in Montana or backpacking across South America? Cormac McCarthy has spent decades wandering West Texas and Northern Mexico and he has found more wisdom and truth in those experiences than most people get out of any professional pursuit. He never made much money until late in life, but so what? What is the “value” of a life like his? I was acquainted with a fairly well known Western writer who lived in a small house full of books in a small, obscure town in the middle of nowhere. He had a day job and spent his free time writing. He was fulfilled and happy. His eventual “success” didn’t change the equation for him. He was already successful in all the most important ways. It seems to me that our modern sense of striving causes some sort of soul sickness that makes us unhappy with simply living. It makes us afraid to take on the unknown. We want the “safe” choice. Sure there are plenty of easily constructed arguments for why the road less traveled is a bad, risky, stupid idea. Lots. Sometimes things fall apart. But, as your blog shows, they also fall apart for lawyers. It seems to me that there are certain people who love the law, who love the intellectual challenge, and who enjoy sleuthing solutions to logical Gordian Knots. That seems reason enough to go, regardless of the outcome. That seems reason enough to do anything.

  10. bl1y Says:

    First, paragraph breaks, dig ‘em.

    Second, I discuss money because that’s a big reason why people go to law school. Maybe people should care less about money, but so long as they do, they should know that law isn’t a very good way of getting it.

    And yes, you can write without an MFA, but odds are with an MFA your writing will be better. It’s also easier to get paying work when you have the right credentials.

    If you want an intellectual challenge and enjoy logical sleuthing, law isn’t for you.

  11. 4T Debt Says:

    Straight out of undergrad, I enrolled in a public, 4T law school. I had no work experience and no idea what I wanted to do, and I thought earning a JD would form my “path to success”. I didn’t take the experience seriously, and my grades were mediocre. No Dean’s List, no law review, no awards of any kind. I merely survived, ensuring my GPA didn’t dip below the 2.0 min. req. (Surprisingly I was able to get a scholarships, awarded based solely on my stellar personality and volunteer experiences). By the time I graduated I wanted out of the law before I even entered.

    However, around graduation time, everyone told me I HAD TO take the bar. Classmates, career counselors, family, friends, other attorneys. I didn’t want to, but like a lamb to slaughter, I registered, only to fail. Others who failed went into retreat ashamed. Me: I didn’t give a shit, although I did want back my $6,000 spent on bar exam prep/exam fees/hotel fees. I wanted to wear a banner that said, “I tried and failed. Now let me live my non-attorney life!”

    Honestly, all I wanted when I graduated was a full-time job with benefits. Even with free tuition and scholarships 2L and 3L years, law school put me into deep debt. $10k credit cards and $45k student loans (interest on both is growing as I type). I was sick of living off credit cards and struggling every month to make minimum payments. I was sick of scrapping together enough to cover my car loan and insurance. I was so sick of racking up more DEBT to progress in the legal field (visit http://www.barbri.com). The LAST thing I wanted to do upon graduation was take out a bar loan and subsidize my summer studying with Visa, MasterCard and Discover. I wanted a J-O-B…the same thing I wanted at age 20.

    Post-law school/bar exam, as I struggled to find a job (any job), I often wondered if I made a “mistake” in going to law school. I did have free tuition my 2nd and 3rd year (but NOT free room, board, beer, food, books, etc.), and I did earn a JD but I wasn’t too impressed by any of it. You see, I have no qualms about the law, I just have no burning desire to practice. It’s not for me, at least not right now. As I interviewed for non-legal jobs I heard the same thing over and over: “Wow, you went to law school? Why aren’t you working at a law firm making a gizzillion dollars? Why would you want to work here making under $50k a year?” At the time, having gone through law school felt like a burden.

    Still, I don’t regret enrolling.

    As a 20-year-old completing law school applications and studying for the LSAT were fearless pursuits. I never once questioned if I’d get a job. I thought the JD would mold me. I was naïve. Seven years later, and two years after law school, I work a non-attorney, mostly administrative job. It’s not the job I want but it pays mid-40s, involves reading contracts and comes with excellent benefits/vacation. Plus, I’m better off than most of my law school classmates who have NO jobs or just part-time hourly-paying jobs.

    Debt-wise I know I’m way better off than my Tier 1, 2 and 3 and private law school graduate buddies who have debt between $100k – $200 and no job in sight. I know I will advance in my organization solely based on the fact that I have a JD. Maybe all this debt is blurring my vision, but at the end of the day, I don’t regret law school.

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