Something To Ponder For Those Contemplating Law School

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled Ten Reasons Not to Go to Law School.  Go here to read it.   Number 7 cited the cost of legal education:

 The cost of a legal education has become frighteningly high.  Being a newly minted attorney, earning $40,000.00 a year and having 100k of debt, is not a good situation.  I graduated with $7,000.00 of debt by comparison in 82, and I thought that was frighteningly high at the time.

Paul Caron at Tax Prof Blog notes an article from National Jurist that law school faculties are 40% larger than just a decade ago:

The average law school increased its faculty size by 40% over the past 10 years, according to a study by The National Jurist to be released in late March. This increase in staffing accounts for 48% of the tuition increase from 1998 to 2008, the study shows. Tuition increased by 74% at private schools and 102% at public institutions from 1998 to 2008. …

Well we all know who gets to pay for all those extra law profs don’t we?  The comments to the article are scathing:

“I have a son who despite nearly hysterical objections from me took on $150,000 in debt to gt a JD. (“What do you know, Dad?”)

He is working, but who knows for how long. The law school that helped put him so much in debt was Northeastern. The administration of that school never acknowledged any moral responsibility for assisting an immature young man to get so deeply into debt. When I talked to Dean Emily Spieler and said she had to take in fewer students or lower tuition, she said, more less, “But I’d have to lay off administrators to do that.”

In other words, “Protecting youngsters might cost our institution something, so it’s out of the question.”

My anger about this is intense. Some day someone will write a play about this kind of situation. I envision a very angry Al Pacino or someone playing the father enraged that his child has been led astray and into a lifetime of debt by self-centered law school administration vacuosities.”

“Hyperinflation. That’s the answer to everything that ails us: high consumer debt, student loan debt, the national debt, the real estate crash, how to “fix” social security and entitlements (“hey you old greedy lazy socialist bastards, here’s you $10 a month in 2005 dollars, just like we promised!”).

I never thought, when I reached thirty, I’d never thought I’d be watching the collapse of the American socio-economic-political system. Let alone cheering for it to happen.”

“I borrowed $90k for law school in the mid-to-late 90s. My bad for poor financial planning, because I thought I would come out owing about $50k but I didn’t count on my tuition being jumped 60% over the 3 years I was there, and I didn’t know interest was being capitalized from the moment the loan issued, even though I wouldn’t be in a position to start paying on it for 3+ years. I own those errors.

What still rankles me is that when I graduated to that $35k per year job, I tried to do the right thing to avoid non-payment, so I consolidated all my loans into one 9% (I envy the Dude’s 8%) 30 year Sallie Mae Loan, that had the interest so front loaded that 10 years later I had paid back more than I borrowed yet still owed more than I borrowed. And from what I hear from young associates, they are even more hosed.

I take ownership of my mistakes here, but honestly, if it wasn’t for a wife and kids, I probably would have skipped the country myself.”




“Last summer, I found out that I qualified for a program to discharge my law school student loans based simply on a form completed by my doctor stating that I was disabled (which in my case is true.) You don’t have to be on Social Security Disability to qualify. The paperwork is only a page or two, signed off by your doctor and mailed in. A month or two later, you get a conditional discharge notice, and three years after that if you are still earning less than some amount ($15,000? $18,000?) you get a final discharge.

I made payments on my student loans during law school, and for years after law school while I was employed, but ended up with medical problems as well as underemployment and unemployment, and the loans that started off at $30,000 ballooned up to $120,000+, after deferments, etc., ran out., even though I paid tens of thousands of dollars toward their repayment. My life is still filled with problems, but it is a huge relief to be able to open the mailbox and know that there will NOT be any collection letters from Sallie Mae & Friends.

I’ll give credit where credit is due: somebody at Sallie Mae told me that my issues were probably serious enough for me to qualify for the program, and she even sent me the paperwork when I was unable to download the form off the internet.

If my law school hadn’t kept jacking up the tuition each year that I attended, I would have graduated with less than $15,000 in debt, which I would have been able to pay off completely before my life fell apart. Legal training should be a combination of genius law professors on DVDs plus practical supervised real-life experience for a couple of years. If I had had to work in a real law office for six months before starting law school, I doubt that I would have gone to law school at all, because a law office is an incredibly unpleasant and stressful work environment.”


You know, the truly sad part about this is, at least in my case, virtually all my skills as an attorney I acquired in on the job training.  Law school is great at forcing you to read quite a bit of case law, but actually learning how to draft documents, win a jury trial, get a lesser sentence for a client in a criminal case, do a bankruptcy case, do a foreclosure, and almost all the other daily tasks I perform as a lawyer, I learned after law school.  What law school taught me I could have picked up in one year and through non-law school legal reading and research.  We attorneys pay a high sum to get a law degree, and then our early clients pay us as we learn how to actually do something with it.  The old apprenticeship system a la Abraham Lincoln was far more rational and produced lawyers just as talented, or talentless, as we have today. 

 My proposal:  BA or BS followed by one year of law school, followed by two years of apprenticeship with a licensed attorney.  Certification by three attorneys and a local judge that you have completed the two years and have not made too big a fool of yourself during that time period.  Then the bar exam and the license upon passage.  The current system is too expensive for the quality of the product at the end:  a completely untrained attorney.

41 Responses to Something To Ponder For Those Contemplating Law School

  1. Art Deco says:

    I will go you several better:

    1. Abolish by statute the current menu of degrees (associate’s, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral) and replace them with a set of one, two, three, and four year programs devoted to a single subject.

    2. Strip higher education of its status as gatekeeper to salaried employment by amending labor law to allow and encourage occupational testing.

    3. End every requirement you can in occupational licensing law for attendance at institutions (rather then the completion of exam series).

    4. Re-incorporate state colleges as philanthropic institutions.

    5. End every public subsidy there is to tertiary education.

    6. Strip every institution you can of its charter and replace it with a charter which puts the institution under the government of a board of trustees elected by its locally-resident alumni.

    7. End academic tenure by statute. Replace it with a system of renewable contracts which might run from one semester to six years in length, with faculty limited to a maximum of perhaps 15 years at any one institution.

    8. Limit the subject degrees institutions may offer to one’s specified in state legislation and ordinances approved by the state board of regents. No more degrees in ‘chicano/a studies’ and ‘integrated arts’.

    9. Pass ‘consumer protection’ legislation to benefit prospective graduate students and the undergraduates who are consumers of their instruction at present.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I think reforms similar to what you suggest Art will come. The easy access to knowlege on the internet is making our current system of higher education at enormous expense at brick and mortar schools as much a relic of the past as a paper phone book.

  3. jonathanjones02 says:


    As a Political Science undergrad that thankfully avoided my once-temptation, law school, you have hit on one of my major hobby horses here! For those interested:

    – think about “market saturation” – we have a LOT of lawyers chasing a small amount of work
    – visit with lawyers. How happy are they? Do they enjoy the work?
    – Think about the crushing debt.

    So much to write here….so much waste, so much talent misdirected……..

  4. John Henry says:

    As a recent law school graduate, I have to agree. Unless someone has a substantial scholarship and/or a trust fund, law school is usually a very bad financial decision. I have friends who are in a tough spot financially having gone six figures into debt to go to a top 10 school; many are now either trapped at jobs they dislike at large firms or, worse, have to renegotiate and restructure all their loan payments because they can’t afford them – and don’t see in the near term how they ever will.

    Now, I enjoyed law school a lot (at least after the first year), and a combination of factors meant that it worked out fine for me, but I would say for at least half the people where I attended, law school was not a smart way to spend three years of lost wages plus an additional $160-$170k.

  5. Jay Anderson says:

    And that’s at a STATE school, too, John Henry. And one that’s considered a “bargain” as far as “Top 10” schools go.

    But if you’re intent on going into that much debt, at least have fun doing it by playing softball and going to Bar Review … go to UVa.


  6. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Jonathan, although I am a happy attorney and busy, I can’t tell you how many truly miserable attorneys I encounter who constantly regret their decision. As for debt, it astounds me how much debt new attorneys are carrying on jobs which often start around 40K. The big starting salaries everyone hears about make up about only 10% of new hires and more than a few of them have been laid off as big firms cut back due to the recession.

    John Henry it always astounds me how many people who go to lawschool really have no clue how most attorneys earn a living. I was one of those clueless law students three decades ago, and I thank God things worked out for me, because I truly didn’t know what I was getting into. Add to that a mountain of debt, and I can imagine more than a few recent law school grads in this tough job market bitterly regret their decision.

  7. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I should mention that my oldest son is beginning college and wants to go on to law school. If he persists in his desire I will do my best to pay for it, but I have made sure that he is intimately familiar with both the positives and the negatives of practicing law.

  8. Gabriel Austin says:

    Lawyers who cannot find a loophole to cancel their burdensome student debts? What is the profession coming to?

    The problem is not new; nor is the attitude of the students. They wish for the fast track to substantial salaries. The universities are simply taking their cut in advance. It does not speak well for the intelligence of the students that they did not foresee the problems.

    And then there is Our Lord’s comment “Woe to you lawyers …”.

  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Actually the amount of debt is new. I graduated in 82 owing $7,000 and made $16,000 my first year out. Precious few law school grads owing 100k will earn over 200k their first year out.

  10. restrainedradical says:

    In NY, you can sit for the bar with one year of law school and three years of apprenticeship.

    Maybe law schools should require courses in legal drafting and trial advocacy. Throw in professional responsibility and evidence and you can make a good two-year curriculum. It’s odd that you can be licensed to practice law without knowing how to draft a will or what to say in front of a judge.

    Whenever someone tells me they’re considering law school, I give them my “Rule of 15.” Unless you can attend a top 15 law school or graduate at the top 15% of your class at a top 150 law school, don’t bother.

  11. Art Deco says:

    Perhaps you could persuade your son that the world needs pharmacists, actuaries, town planners, and bank examiners (in spades).

  12. Jim says:

    Peter Schiff How government programs drive up college tuitions

  13. Elaine Krewer says:

    My job involves the field of administrative law — regulations drawn up by agencies to implement statutes after they are passed. Occasionally these regulations are the subject of legal action. Frequently my coworkers and I discover we know and understand these regulations better than the attorneys involved in these lawsuits do. With one exception, none of us went to law school. We learned it all on the job. I see no reason why bright young legal minds could not do the same.

  14. Donna V. says:

    Perhaps you could persuade your son that the world needs pharmacists, actuaries, town planners, and bank examiners (in spades).

    Don’t forget engineers. That’s a very real problem in the US. The engineers I know seem to be pretty happy fellows (they are all male) although the profession is stuck with a “nerd” reputation and isn’t nearly as glamourous as imagining yourself transfixing a jury with your eloquence.

  15. Donna V. says:

    The running joke in DC when I lived there was that if you swung a dead cat around, you’d knock over 6 lawyers. Not that I ever tried it. Knocking over lawyers is a surefire way to land yourself in court 🙂

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Don’t forget engineers.”

    My son is taking an advanced placement calc course in his senior year, and getting an A in it, but as he advised me he never wants to take another math course in his life I doubt if engineering is in the cards. Now his sister who is a freshman and aiming for the Air Force academy I could imagine going in that direction, although she has certainly inherited my ability and joy in arguing!

  17. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “if you swung a dead cat around, you’d knock over 6 lawyers”

    I’ve had live animals tossed at me but no dead ones. Yet.

  18. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “In NY, you can sit for the bar with one year of law school and three years of apprenticeship.”

    I wish Illinois had that policy restrainedradical.

  19. Donna V. says:

    I’ve had live animals tossed at me but no dead ones. Yet.

    I’m sure there’s quite a story behind that. That’s another thing about being a lawyer – the possibility of meeting society’s er, more colorful types. For some that would be a plus, for others a minus.

  20. Jay Anderson says:

    The Commonwealth of Virginia (in addition to a few other states) doesn’t even require you to go to law school: via a method called “reading the law”, an applicant for the Virginia bar can take the bar exam after extended study under a judge or practicing attorney.

    I suppose they figure if reading the law was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc. …

    I’m not sure that’s not the best way to go about it, actually. You get practical work experience under the one-on-one guidance of a mentor while studying the law. And, although I’m not sure it actually works this way, hopefully you’re getting paid instead of going into tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

  21. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “The Commonwealth of Virginia (in addition to a few other states) doesn’t even require you to go to law school: via a method called “reading the law”, an applicant for the Virginia bar can take the bar exam after extended study under a judge or practicing attorney.

    I suppose they figure if reading the law was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc. …”

    It is truly bizarre that The Land of Lincoln, of all places, does not have such a rational alternative to law school. We used to, well before my time, and a few such attorneys were still practicing when I became an attorney. I could not distinguish them from attorneys that went through the law school mill.

  22. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Justice Heiple, who was a maverick both good and bad, registered a strong dissent when the Illinois Supreme Court made graduation from an ABA accredited law school mandatory back in 1977:

    “JUSTICE HEIPLE, dissenting:

    By the amendment to Rule 711 and by Rule 703, which was previously adopted, this court recognizes only law schools which have been approved by the American Bar Association. I both dissent and object to these rules because they represent an improper delegation of a governmental and judicial function to a trade association of lawyers.

    The American Bar Association is a voluntary association of dues paying lawyers (currently $225 per annum) that exists for the benefit of its members. No lawyer is required to belong. Most do not. It clothes its parochial existence with an overlay of public activities and pronouncements designed to convince the general public that it is interested in the general welfare. That its primary focus is the benefit of its members, however, is beyond question. That the American Bar Association is a trade association warrants neither commendation nor condemnation. As a trade association engaging in improving the status of lawyers and lobbying Congress and the State legislatures, it is on a par with any other trade association. It is decidedly not, however, an arm of the State of Illinois nor of this court.

    It is improper for this court to assign and delegate to that organization the ultimate decisionmaking function of deciding for the State of Illinois which law schools warrant official recognition. It would be proper, of course, for this court and its Board of Law Examiners (now, Board of Admissions to the Bar) to consider and weigh the evaluations of the American Bar Association in considering which law schools are to be approved. The work of the American Bar Association in evaluating law schools could be considered as relevant evidence in that regard. No objection could be raised to that procedure.

    This court, however, has no right to delegate its decisionmaking function to the American Bar Association, the Teamsters Union, the Republic of Uganda or any other such body or group. If the rule asserts a valid principle of law, then this court could as well assign all of its decisionmaking functions to others who might be considered experts in their field.

    For the reasons given, I respectfully dissent.”

  23. anthony rowe says:

    Jay, that sounds particularly close to what I refer to as a “conservative education.”

    I have always been of the idea that someone should not seek out the advanced education, that most colleges claim to provide, in a field… unless they have been working in that field for several years.

    you want to be a lawyer? go work for a lawyer doing what work he can trust you with and learn from him. when you have learned what he can teach then go to school if you think its necessary.

  24. restrainedradical says:

    I don’t know any lawyer who actually went the apprenticeship route in states that allow it. Hard to find a lawyer who’s willing to commit years to teaching someone for nothing in return. Maybe some parent-child arrangements.

    Law school isn’t a trade school. You don’t actually learn much law. And the better the school, the less law you learn. Law school is supposed to make you think and write like a lawyer regardless of what the law is. That’s not easy to learn on the job. I’d go as far as to say that law school is almost essential for public policymakers.

  25. Jay Anderson says:

    Agreed, Art Deco. The problem with public policy is that there are TOO MANY lawyers making it.

    Better preparation for public policymakers would be business school or, better yet, owning one’s own business and having to meet a payroll and navigate through the various regulatory schemes and requirements that government places upon them.

    I’d probably be happier with the current health care reform efforts if there were more doctors and nurses and hospital administrators and bioethicists writing the policy and fewer lawyers (i.e. NONE) involved.

    I do, however, partly agree with RestrainedRadical that law school (at least the better ones) are not trade schools but rather are supposed to teach one how to think and write and reason.

  26. Mike Petrik says:

    Jay et al,
    I would distinguish between making policy versus writing law. In my days as a young lawyer I used to hope for a time when legislatures were composed of businessmen and tradesmen rather than lawyers. My wish has been granted in the GA Gen’l Assembly, which has very few lawyers these days, and the results have not been pretty. While it is possibly true (more below) that lawyers have no special charism for public policy, we in GA have learned the hard way that we actually do possess some advantages when it comes to crafting legislation. The legislation generated by the GA legislature in recent years is horrid — not necessarily from a policy standpoint, but from a crafting standpoint. We practioners encounter new laws that are internally inconsistent, ungrammatical and unintelligible. As for policy, good and experienced lawyers ought to have insights into the human condition that are advantageous for crafting policy. That said, my experience tells me that this is usually not the case.

  27. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “Law school is supposed to make you think and write like a lawyer regardless of what the law is.”

    I’ve heard that claim made before restrainedradical and I’ve never really understood it. After 28 years at the bar it seems to me that lawyers tend to approach legal issues in widely divergent matters if they have much complexity to them at all. As for writing like a lawyer, I do agree that most attorneys have a dreadful writing style, filled with arcane jargon and often unintelligible, so perhaps that goal is usually attained.

  28. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Mike you have my utmost sympathy. One of my chief complaints practicing law in Illinois is how badly the legislation is written, and this from a General Assembly packed with lawyers. Judges and other attorneys routinely join in my complaints. One would think that legislators would have staffers who could write a statute in a logical and intelligible manner, but this apparently is not the case in both Illinois and Georgia. If the legislative drafting standard in Georgia is below that of Illinois it must truly be abysmal indeed.

  29. John Henry says:

    Well, the best attorneys generally don’t jump at the chance to draft state legislation (except when they are lobbying on behalf of their clients). But Mike’s suggestion above makes sense to the extent that the only thing worse than legislation drafted by lawyers, is legislation drafted by people without any educational or professional experience in statutory interpretation.

  30. Mike Petrik says:

    Admittedly, most of my law drafting experiences involved paying clients. That said, many talented young lawyers, including those at large firms, would probably be excited at the prospect of assisting legislators and non-profits on a pro bono basis in the writing of legislation. They just need to be asked. Most large firms would enthusiastically cooperate as long as conflicts are cleared.

  31. John Henry says:

    Oh, I agree, Mike. As a pro bono opportunity, what young attorney wouldn’t want that on their resume? I certainly would. My comment was intended to suggest most talented attorneys don’t gravitate towards positions that involve drafting state legislation as their full-time occupation. Pro bono, of course, is a different story. And, for what it’s worth, I think your suggestion would lead to better drafting.

    To tie this comment a bit back to Don’s post, most young attorneys have debt loads that make large firms significantly more attractive than working for the government, particularly state government. Not surprisingly, they often end up at those firms, frequently after a stint clerking for a judge.

  32. Elaine Krewer says:

    “One of my chief complaints practicing law in Illinois is how badly the legislation is written, and this from a General Assembly packed with lawyers.”

    I hear ya there Don. I spent most of today poring over a bill (not yet a law) that had more holes in it than Swiss cheese 🙂

    “One would think that legislators would have staffers who could write a statute in a logical and intelligible manner.”

    In Illinois most bill drafting is done by an agency known as the Legislative Reference Bureau, which I believe does have a sizeable number of attorneys on its staff.

    “many talented young lawyers, including those at large firms, would probably be excited at the prospect of assisting legislators and non-profits on a pro bono basis in the writing of legislation.”

    Well, just a few weeks ago the Board of Higher Education proposed a new program that would forgive a sizeable portion of student loans for law school graduates who enter some kind of “public service” after graduation — including pro bono legal aid firms but also including (you guessed it) LRB and the General Assembly itself. (Whether or not there is or ever will be money to FUND this program is another story.)

  33. Elaine Krewer says:

    “It is truly bizarre that The Land of Lincoln, of all places, does not have such a rational alternative to law school.”

    My boss has a master’s degree in administrative law, which she earned attending classes part time while her kids were school age. Before that she was an Illinois Senate staffer and did a lot of work drafting bills, and before THAT she was a schoolteacher. I’d say she’s just as qualified if not more qualified for bar admission than a lot of law school graduates are. I would say the same might be true of a good, experienced agency rules coordinator (the people who write state regulations to implement statutes). These positions don’t require any more than a bachelor’s degree.

  34. Jay Anderson says:


    I can’t speak to the quality of the legislative drafting that goes on in the Georgia General Assembly, but as long as you understand (and I have it on good authority) that the folks who compile and edit the O.C.G.A. are top-notch, rather good-looking individuals with excellent senses of humor who do their best to make the task of statutory analysis a pleasure rather than a burden for the Georgia practitioner.


  35. Mike Petrik says:

    I’m absolutely certain of it!

  36. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “I’d say she’s just as qualified if not more qualified for bar admission than a lot of law school graduates are.”

    I’d say that is correct Elaine, and that with a few years supervision by an experienced attorney she would probably make a fine addition to the bar. In too many areas of modern society we confuse possession of a credential with possession of the knowledge and ability to do a certain job.

  37. Donald R. McClarey says:

    What I say about law is also applicable in many other areas. My wife has two master’s degrees. She has taught at the university level and in a public high school on an emergency substitute certificate. (The administration couldn’t find anyone to fill the position of Spanish teacher so they turned to my wife who has a master’s degree in that subject.) As a supplement to the public instruction of our kids she has home schooled them after school since pre-school with superb results. Yet, if she wished to obtain a teacher’s certificate she would have to take almost three years of course material at a college. I, on the other hand, who haven’t taught since I obtained my teaching degree over three decades ago before I ran off to law school, would simply need to update my teaching certificate and I could be teaching in a public school in the fall, despite the fact that I am not a quarter of the teacher my wife is.

  38. Art Deco says:

    Another example of predation by trade associations and public employee unions. Legislators behave as if the country belongs to these clowns and the rest of us are guests.

  39. […] have cautioned readers before on the drawbacks of going to law school here and here.  When I graduated from law school I had $7,000 in debt which was slightly under half of my first […]

  40. […] attorneys who read TAC, I have warned you about the law as a profession on several occasions, here, here, and here.  You have been adequately warned!   For those of you who ignore my advice and are […]

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