That's my basic advice to all prospective law school students. Here are my premises:
(1) Law schools can be very expensive. With tuition costing $30,000/year or higher at many law schools, students can easily ring up $120-$150,000 in student debt for 3 years of law school education. In contrast, law schools at public universities often have reasonable rates for in-state residents -- usually half or less that of nearby private institutions.
(2) Students must be able to find jobs that will allow them to pay off their student loans. A student that takes out $120-$150,000 in loans is going to need to find a job that pays a lot of money.
- For example: Suppose a law student borrows $135,000 at an interest rate of 7.5%. According to finaid.org, the monthly payments on a 20-year repayment schedule would be $1,087/month. Suppose further that this student decides to work for a small firm or government office in Philadelphia, for $43,000/year. After paying federal, state, and city wage tax (4.26% as of 1 Jan 2007), this unfortunate law graduate will be taking home a meager $607.55/week, or about $2,600/month [calculated at paycheckcity.com, assumptions: single taxpayer, 2 exemptions, PA resident living in Philadelphia County]. This law graduate will be spending almost 42% of his or her net income to service this debt. On a 30-year repayment schedule, monthly payments are still a burdensome $943/month, or 36% of the law graduate's salary. Will you be able to pay all your other bills (housing, food, clothing, transportation and telephone, to name a few) on $1500-$1700 a month?
(3) The number of high paying jobs for law graduates is very limited. The large firms that pay the big salaries will recruit mostly from prestigious nationally known schools, and take the top 10-15% of students from respected regional schools.
(4) A large percentage of students (my guess is 90-95%) who took massive loans to go to less well known law schools will NOT be able to obtain large firm work. Smaller firms and government agencies generally start newly licensed lawyers at 30-50k/year. At this salary level, many students will be hard pressed to make their student loan payments.
- Yes, the salary situation IS that bad. Empirical Legal Studies recently posted a commentary on the latest NALP data, showing a huge bi-modal distribution of self-reported salaries for law graduates. The short version is that most graduates in private practice will be making $50k or less, while a select few in large firms will be making six figures.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that in general:
(5) Attending a prestigious law school may be worth the cost, because there is an excellent chance that a graduate will find a high enough paying job to pay down the massive debt.
(6) A state resident attending a law school at his/her state university will generally incur substantially less debt than someone at a private university, and will be able to take a lesser paying job and still pay the bills.
(7) Attending a private law school that will not enable a student to obtain a job that will allow that student to pay his/her loans is a recipe for financial hardship or disaster.
I've typed this out quickly, and left out other variables like financial aid, family wealth, and debt forgiveness, but I will try to examine those in some detail later.