Risk-aversion shows I'm qualified, right?
July 13, 2009 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Should I take out a full load of student loans to attend a top-6 law school right now?

I just got accepted off the waitlist at the last minute. This is not a "should I go to law school?" question; I'm already excited and fully committed.

The question, rather, is how much risk should I take financially in this economy? I was not offered a grant or scholarship (and might have a better chance at being considered for one next year if I apply very early - I put my applications in very near the deadline instead of in the fall). I currently have a job that pays well enough to put some savings away by next year, let's say at least enough to cover living expenses over all 3 years, and hope to come up with some opportunities to enhance my income given the extra time. I also have some personal projects I could finish up and be satisfied overall with spending another year this way before embarking on a long-term, non-interruptible career path like law. Until this waitlist acceptance, I was perfectly content with reapplying next year.

I am passionate about becoming a lawyer but terrified of becoming a debt slave. I can't seriously consider the possibility of committing to a loan payment plan that lasts longer than 5 years; right now, my 5-year payment plan would be $4,000 monthly starting 6 months after graduation.

On the other hand, schools like Columbia, NYU and Chicago are extremely competitive. As I was waitlisted at all 3 this year, I may not be able to count on getting in next year and they don't give deferrals to waitlisted admittees. After applying to other schools, I am certain that these are the only ones I would seriously consider attending, especially on student loans. I think I might be game for big law, but my freedom to choose is more valuable to me than anything, and I don't want to be stuck with it if I genuinely hate it.

Biglaw isn't even hiring right now, and I certainly don't want to place a $200k bet that they will be by 2012. My loans and interest rates are a certainty; the economy and the effects the recession will have on the legal industry and my ability to thrive or survive as a member of it in the near future are anything but certain. If it becomes clear over the next 12 months that student loans this large would be a death sentence for anyone, I could come up with a plan B and be glad to have escaped such a fate, even if being a lawyer remains my first career choice.

So I could be making the biggest financial mistake of my life (there are suddenly no guarantees of summer associateships and huge starting salaries for anyone at any law school?!) - or throwing away the biggest opportunity of my life (admissions are likely to get even more competitive next year, although I do have competitive numbers and would like to chalk up having been waitlisted to having applied quite late and scoring a 6-point increase on the February LSAT after applying with a lower score from December). If I pass up an opportunity to go to my dream school that might not materialize again next year, I'll always regret it; if I find that my life is essentially over after graduation due to crushing debt obligations, I will probably lose the will to go on after a couple years. Which way to go?
posted by anonymous to Education (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you should go for it, it'll take you three years to complete it right? I know it might bite me in the butt to say this now but, things should start turning around by then yeah?
posted by Groovytimes at 12:06 PM on July 13, 2009

No one can answer your question without a crystal ball. Some of us think that the US economy is going through wrenching changes and a return to the status quo is not in the cards. Better to be an engineer in 2012 than an attorney, according to this view. I can tell you that 10 years out of grad school I'm still shoveling cash at my student loans, and there is no end in sight.
posted by Crotalus at 12:07 PM on July 13, 2009

Congrats on getting in to a great school. That's terrific. And the financial question is a good one -- I know lots of lawyers who took jobs they wouldn't have if they hadn't had quite the crushing debt load. So if you can wait and save some money and apply for grants, etc., that's a decent option.

I'd also ask yourself whether you're really set on these three law schools and only these three. There are lots of ways to become a lawyer, also lots of really top-notch state schools, that don't involve quite as much debt. And if you're considering passing up your "first career choice" because you don't get into your first-choice school, well, then, maybe it's not really your first career choice.
posted by janet lynn at 12:12 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

NYU has one of the better loan repayment programs if you go into public interest law. This might sway your decision if that's the one your looking at. IIRC, Colombia's and Chicago's are not as helpful but still significant. You can check out the details pretty easily on their financial aid pages, but all the plans are pretty complicated (except Yale's, which is just so awesome it can be explained in a couple paragraphs).

This is a really tough time to make a decision, since it's not really clear right now how this year's summer internships are going to do in terms of how many get offers, and everyone is still waiting to see how OCI goes. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a Colombia, NYU or Chicago grad with near median grades won't be able to get a biglaw job if she wants it come OCI next year. However, I'm not betting $200,000 on it.

If you do reapply, the conventional wisdom is that an extremely early application (early October) is a small but significant edge in applications. You could try doing ED at whichever school is your favorite, which would also give you a slight boost.
posted by bluejayk at 12:16 PM on July 13, 2009

Go to the highest-ranked law school you can get into and afford. There are a few exceptions. For example, if you are a Virginia resident who gets accepted to UVA, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, you should go to UVA (you'll have the exact same job opportunities and much less debt). But if you're a non-resident of VA with the same options, you should go to Yale.

BigLaw will be hiring by 2012. (That statement is made as a prediction, and not as a promise.)
posted by The World Famous at 12:19 PM on July 13, 2009

I say go for it.
posted by delmoi at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2009

Income-based repayment should cap your loan payments at a manageable level. Don't worry too much about not getting a job with a big law firm, whether by choice or otherwise. As others have mentioned, many schools have loan assistance programs, particularly for those who enter public service jobs.

You should bear in mind that as a formerly wait-listed student it may be difficult for you to excel unless you have a very strong study ethic. Normally I would never advise someone to go to a law school that they might not excel at (where excel means at least the top 25% of the class), but a Top 6 school should get you into a decent job pretty much no matter where you end up, so long as you don't completely screw things up.
posted by jedicus at 12:23 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe it would help to focus on some why questions:

-Why do you want to be an attorney? Are you passionate about a specific field of law? Are you more interested in the potential to make money than the job itself?

-Why did you choose the particular schools you applied to? Do you like their specific programs/professors/networking opportunities? Are you partially assuming that graduating from a top school will lead to a higher income? What can a top school give you that a less expensive school can't provide?

-How well do you think you will do in terms of the rest of the class? Will you likely be on of the top students (and likely solicited by major high-paying firms)?

-What type of law do you want to practice? Are you interested in something like patent law or wealth management or are you interested in something along the lines of public defender or State's Attorney? If you prefer the latter, then a less expensive school may make more sense.

I think everything depends on what type of law you want to practice and where you want your career to take you. Obviously, there are no guarantees with this economy and there may still be a large glut of recent law graduates when you are going to be graduating. However, if you are passionate about going into law, then I think you should go for it.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2009

Well, keep this in mind. There are opportunities that will only be available to you if you go to a big-name school. If you want to clerk at the SCOTUS, or go into one of the top-shelf white-shoe firms, then you *need* to go to a top law school. If you expect to hang out a shingle, you can get your JD anywhere, and it'll be just as good.

On the one hand, you don't want that huge debt load. On the other, you might not want to lock yourself out of these rare opportunities out of hand. I say, if "Biglaw" or the federal bench (or anything else that requires the pristine academic pedigree) is where you want to go, then you *have* to take out the loans. What you need to do, really, is figure out what kind of law career you want in a hurry.

Good luck!
posted by Citrus at 12:32 PM on July 13, 2009

Go to nalp.org and read up on their materials about starting salaries and the like. The real good stuff they have is premium content and is worth purchasing imo.

You are positioning yourself very well, and if you can succeed in a top-6, you will come out as a strong job candidate when you graduate. Also factor in a strong possibility of getting lucrative summer associate positions.

The bottom line is, the cost benefit analysis is a measurement of your own risk appetite and nobody can make the decision for you. You should simply be as well informed as to the realities of the job climate and the prospects upon graduation, as possible.
posted by stratastar at 12:51 PM on July 13, 2009

You sound like you already know that you want to be an attorney. If that's the case, you should simply go to the best law school you possibly can get into. If you've gotten into a top 6, you should go there, and max out your loan debt.

The feds rolled out a new repayment program this year called Income Based Repayment. It makes payments very affordable and forgives your debt entirely after 25 years (in case you have a burning wish to take a low-paying but awesome law job). It also forgives your debt after 10 years if you take a public service job or a job with the government.

So I don't think the debt should be your main consideration. If that's the only thing that's making you think about postponing law school, you should go.
posted by Happydaz at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If people care about degrees in your field, then a big brand name school is very important. Law is definitely one of those fields. You can't add a more prestigious law degree later so making the correct law school purchase is essential. You may be a great lawyer with a degree from a bottom tier school, but you aren't going to get the prestigious clerkship or partner track first job, etc.

I can't seriously consider the possibility of committing to a loan payment plan that lasts longer than 5 years

Why exactly? You are purchasing a capital asset that you expect it to be useful throughout your professional life. If you're only planning to use the asset for 5 years, then I get it. If you've got a long professional life ahead of you, then I don't understand this mindset.

Caveat: I'm an MBA and not a JD.
posted by 26.2 at 1:31 PM on July 13, 2009

If you model it as an investment, the expected return on tuition expense for a top law school is immense even with modest assumptions for earnings improvement, vastly outpacing the modest cost of loan repayment. You'd only do otherwise when your alternative is a very strongly ranked (if not top-10) school with a far cheaper net tuition in the geographic market in which you are dead certain you wish to reside and practice.
posted by MattD at 1:34 PM on July 13, 2009

You are purchasing a capital asset that you expect it to be useful throughout your professional life.

I think the OP hopes it will be useful throughout his professional life and despite his stated "passion" for the law, you can't really be sure how passionate you are about being a lawyer until you've been a lawyer. Or anything for that matter.
posted by anniecat at 1:48 PM on July 13, 2009

I'm with the upthreadders: always buy the highest-ranked law school you can afford. Law is a very brand-name oriented field. While you may end up a more capable lawyer (in terms of practical undertakings) if you go to your local state school and concentrate on local rules of evidence and criminal defense classes (or what have you), you will be foreclosing a world of opportunities available only to graduates of the top ten/top six/top three schools if you just go cheap. Also, don't try to pay it off in five years--that seems like madness to me. Federal loans are EXCEEDINGLY cheap; I'd leave those outstanding for the full 30-year term. Private loans are more expensive, but you should take a 30-year plan and then just make pre-payments ahead of schedule. That way, you are not locking yourself into a larger monthly payment. In this economy, you want to build up cash (IMHO). Also--just a datapoint: at my biglaw firm, the start date for the class of 2009 is sometime in January (i.e., more than 6 months after graduation). I'd want to be sure that repayment (at $4,000/month!?!) does not kick in until after you've started work (and made a dent on your credit card bills that you will certainly rack up in the interim).

My eternal refrain, however, is especially true in this economy: just going to the top-ranked school you get into is never enough. While I did know several super geniuses at school (all of whom went on to be Circuit clerks (in tasty Circuits) and one or two SCT clerks) who never did much work (at least to the naked eye), everyone else has to put in their hours.

In sum--resign yourself to the debt and work your ass off.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:59 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Excellent points by Admiral Haddock regarding payment plan. 5 year 4k/mo is just silly.
posted by stratastar at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2009

Education is the best investment you will ever make. Top six is the ticket to riches in the practice of law, but be forewarned that you will work your ass off to make that big money.
posted by caddis at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2009

Top six is the ticket to riches in the practice of law, but be forewarned that you will work your ass off to make that big money.

If you don't work your ass off to make big money in law, you will have to work your ass of to make small money. Either way, you're going to work your ass off or fail. Lawyers sell a product: Their time. You can either sell it for a high price or for a low price, but ultimately you have a finite amount of it to sell. You ability to succeed as a lawyer depends on a) how much of your time you sell, and b) how much you can justify charging for it.
posted by The World Famous at 2:26 PM on July 13, 2009

I think the OP hopes it will be useful throughout his professional life and despite his stated "passion" for the law, you can't really be sure how passionate you are about being a lawyer until you've been a lawyer. Or anything for that matter.

Fair enough. There's nothing in the question that indicates that OP feels law is a temporary career. If the OP feels like law might be a short lived job, we'd need to look at the salvage value of prestigious law degree versus a less prestigious law degree. However, if the OP is expecting to practice law for 10 or 15 years, then that asset is still valuable for that time.

Ultimately, it depends what the OP wants. If he wants a BigLaw career (or thinks he might want one in 3 years), then he's got to make the choices that put him on that path.
posted by 26.2 at 2:43 PM on July 13, 2009

Miami Law has too many 1Ls.
posted by Pants! at 2:48 PM on July 13, 2009

When I thought about applying to law school, I solicited the advice of a lot of practicing lawyers. Following are the various points they told me:

1) Law school bears little resemblance to the actual practice of law, no matter what kind of law you practice. Law school professors are generally uninformed about the quotidian realities of being a practicing lawyer and so are not likely to provide much relevant insight.

2) There is a vast different between reading cases and doing you job.

3) Many, many, many, many lawyers at big city law firms (which hire principally from the top 10 law schools) do not like their jobs.

4) Of the 50 or so lawyers I spoke with, exactly 1 told me she enjoyed her law school experience. Her argument was that law school teaches you to think in a very structured, logical way. Fair enough, but I don't think it follows that you can't learn this kind of skill elsewhere. The other 49 or so lawyers I spoke with indicated that they wished they had gone into a different career, such as teaching or business or something other than law.

5) There will always be a demand for high end legal work; the question is how large that demand will be in the future. To put it another way: there will always be a demand for cars, but we don't know the market size of the US auto industry three years hence.

The overall point to emphasize here is this: don't conflate interest in "the law" with what it means to practice law on a daily basis.
posted by dfriedman at 2:59 PM on July 13, 2009

I think the threshold question here is whether you want to go to biglaw. It sounds like you do. If so, it is very, very important to go to the best school you get into. This is a prestige-obsessed profession. You will be looking for your biglaw job in the fall of 2010, however, and I strongly suspect that the legal recruiting market will not yet have rebounded. Many biglaw firms have already deferred their 2009 classes of incoming associates to 2010, and it remains to be seen how this will shake out for successive class years. So you are also right to be concerned about amassing debt that is difficult to pay off. Good luck.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 3:12 PM on July 13, 2009

Biglaw isn't even hiring right now, and I certainly don't want to place a $200k bet that they will be by 2012.

I don't think this is exactly the right timeframe in which to be analyzing things. If you start law school now and do the traditional interview/2L summer route (if it even still exists...), we're talking about law firm hiring practices in 2010, not 2012. Unless you want to wait until your 3L year to look for employment, law firms have to think in 2010 how many offers they will want to give in 2011 for full-time employment in 2012, and that's not an easy thing for firms to judge. (Just look at all the turmoil with deferred first-years, shrinking summer classes, etc.)

My advice in general is pretty different from most of the folks in this thread. Unless you want to keep white-shoe opportunities open (ie, fancy firms, fancy clerkships, or academia), I'd go to the school which offers you the most scholarship money in the city in which you plan to settle after law school. I did not, and I wish I had avoided this huge debt-load.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:19 PM on July 13, 2009

This doesn't directly answer your question, but since you'll want to be saving money if you go the Top 6 route, the South Side of Chicago is significantly cheaper than Morningside Heights, which will be somewhat cheaper than Greenwich Village.
posted by j1950 at 3:24 PM on July 13, 2009

[Rising 2L at a top-3 school]

What are your numbers? Applying late in the cycle is an enormous disadvantage. If you were able to get in off the waitlist at Chicago/Columbia/NYU this time, you might have a chance at Yale/Harvard/Stanford if you apply at the beginning of the cycle next time.

That would also put you one more year away from this job market. Yes, the JD takes three years, but if you end up deciding to start with a BigLaw firm (like 90% of T14 grads end up doing), then the relevant time frame for you is August/September of your 2L year. Believe me, I'd be very happy putting OCI off for another year or two right now.

Of the 50 or so lawyers I spoke with, exactly 1 told me she enjoyed her law school experience.

That's sad. But not true for everyone. I would say two-thirds to three-quarters of my friends enjoy law school. I loved my 1L year, and would happily do it all over again. (And not just because I could put off OCI for another year).

PM me if you want some numbers from last year's OCI (at the height of the financial crisis) and more thoughts on law school so far.
posted by ewiar at 4:46 PM on July 13, 2009

Pay close attention to all the comments from the lawyers here, they provide the best advice. I have been out of law school for 9 years (top tier, but definitely not as high ranked as the school you got into, congrats) and your question is best answered by those who've gone thru law school.

First and most importantly, you may be excited right now, but law school is a means to an end and doesn't prepare you for the rest of your career. What it does is to re-program your brain to think like a lawyer. Don't think that it'll be handy to have a JD, it is only useful if you practice law. Having said that, it sounds like you're pretty hell bent on going.

Second, why are you so worried about paying off your debt in 5 years? If you end up at a big firm, you're going to be paid well enough that you can afford your student loan payments even if you don't pay it off in 5 years. I'm in the public sector (granted, a fairly well paying public sector job, but nowhere near firm salaries) and I've been able to afford a home, a car and vacations all while making student loan payments.

Finally, you will only be making the biggest financial mistake of your life if you end up going and not practicing law. If you end up being practicing and making a career out of it, you will have made an investment that will probably pay off pretty well.

Good luck. Not to be all Debbie Downer, but I hated law school, I hope your experience is better than mine.
posted by calgirl13 at 9:26 PM on July 13, 2009

Coincidentally, this popped up in my RSS feed this morning. While the question is different than yours, the reader letters at the end have a lot of insight into the financial burden of law school and the profession.
posted by Maarika at 7:35 AM on July 14, 2009

Don't do this. I did it and am suffering the consequences. Unemployment and a 1200$ loan payment is soul crushing, don't put yourself in that position.

Go to the best law school that you can get into...for free (or at least cheap). Look for the most scholarship money and take that.

The BigLaw model is dying, even the largest clients are balking at subsidizing a model that pays a 25yr old 160 grand a year when they don't know anything. Those 160k positions are already being pushed back by over a year, and who knows what the future holds.

Go to a smaller regional law school with "inferior" competition. If you finished in the top 5 or 10% of the class there, you'll have the same BigLaw and clerkship opportunities as all but the most elite "HYS" graduates. And your debt burden will be far far less.
posted by T.D. Strange at 9:35 AM on September 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

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