Business Insider has been in touch with a 28-year-old lawyer who has deep regrets about his decision to go to law school. He agreed to answer questions about the burdens of law school debt, and about what he’d do differently if he could.
This law school graduate’s answers are sobering. He attended a school that’s one of the top 20 in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report, and yet he struggled to find decent work.
He believes his law school tricked him into thinking he’d easily find a prestigious job after graduation.
“I consider law school a waste of my life and an extraordinary waste of money. I feel like I was duped and tricked,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s my own fault for being a sucker and I learned an extremely hard lesson.”
These days, he makes $US45,000 and has $US200,000 in education debt. He lives with his parents in Virginia, doesn’t have a car, and doesn’t even date. In his free time, he does contract work to try to pay down his debt.
We’re published all of his answers, which include insights into when law school might actually be a viable option. He asked that we not use his real name.
Why did you decide to go to law school?
Because I wanted to be a lawyer. I also wanted greater career opportunities than my BA offered me. I believed the legal education industry’s sales pitch circa 2007-08 that lawyers will always be in demand and that bankruptcy will be a hot practice area when the economy is poor.
What kind of job were you hoping to get?
Optimal outcome would have been an associate position with a large firm making $US160,000. I knew I only had a 20% chance of landing that position, so I thought a realistic outcome was at a mid-sized firm making less than the large law firm salary but still a respectable amount.
What kind of job did you end up getting?
I kicked around miserable small law firms for two years. My first job was at a small law firm where the owner ran through associates like tissue paper. He stole from paychecks, screamed, yelled, etc. I quit after a short while. In my next job, I worked for another small firm but this time I had to start as an “intern” even though I was a fully licensed attorney. This meant I had to work for free for three months. I did it in the hopes that this would lead to a decently paid associate position. After three months, my boss offered me $US1,000 per month. I was desperate so I did it.
I have a top-20 law degree and I was making the equivalent of a $US12,000/year salary. McDonald’s managers — nay, workers — were my economic superiors by a long stretch. After 3 months getting paid $US1,000/month, I got a raise to the paltry sum of $US2,000. It was insulting considering the boss hired several other attorneys and paid them peanuts as well. There’s such an enormous oversupply of law school graduates so he was and is able to continue this practice. Eventually I moved onto another law firm where I am now. I don’t get much responsibility and there’s no upward mobility potential at my current job, but I’m happy just to have an office to myself, a boss who isn’t insane, health care, and some vacation time (!). I had all of these things before I foolishly went to law school.
Roughly how much do you make?
$45,000 but I’m $US200,000 in debt from law school so 15% of my income goes to paying my law school loans through my income-based repayment plan.
Do you enjoy it at all?
Occasionally, but if I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t feel suicidal and desperate at my job anymore but it’s still not a great position.
Do you think your law school misled you about your job prospects? How?
Unquestionably. My law school offered job statistics that were materially misleading and they knew it. The job statistics offered by law schools are carefully designed to induce new students to take out a life-destroying amount of debt that is, by law, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy in all but the most dire circumstances.
It’s pretty easy to hop on the Internet Wayback Machine and see what law schools do. They told me the median starting salary of graduates was $US160,000 and some absurd percentage — like 90%+ ± of graduates were employed within 9 months of graduation.
This reasonably lead me to believe that even if I wasn’t going to be in the top of my class and make $US160,000, surely the jobs in the tier below the top big firm jobs would pay a living wage. Never in my worst nightmares did I think I’d find myself with $US200,000 in debt, making less than $US50,000, struggling to find job openings and to move on in my career.
Law schools know exactly what they’re doing and survey a small percentage of graduating classes to concoct these job and salary numbers. Because there’s been a large outcry of criticism against this practice, the schools have begun to offer slightly more factual job and salary data. Law school is called an “investment,” but you couldn’t get away with the sales pitches that law schools use to induce new students to give them loan money, which is all they are interested in.
I cannot sell an investment and lead investors to believe that the median investor makes a big 89% return. I cannot crow about all the opportunities this investment will offer when it offers nothing to 70-80% of investors. This would be a materially misleading statement and actionable. Law schools, however, operate by a different code and they want prospective students to believe a prosperous career awaits. For the majority of students, they have to struggle to put food on the table. Law school leaves many graduates in a far worse position than they started with.
How much is your monthly student loan payment?
My loan payment would be about $US1,900 if I was on a plan to pay off the loans in about 10 years. However, because my income is so low, I’m on an income-based repayment (IBR) plan that reduces my payment to about $US400 per month. With the IBR plan, I pay a lot less but the cut that the loan company takes is a percentage – 15% of discretionary income (amount by which adjusted gross income exceeds the poverty line).
So if I ever make a decent wage (which I highly doubt at this juncture), the interest will have piled up on my loans and the loan provider will still get 15% so they’ll make a nice profit. With the IBR plan, my debt is discharged after 25 years but at the end of 25 years, the amount my debt that is “forgiven” by the government will be a taxable gift. So I could be looking at a six-figure tax bill when I’m in my 50s. I believe this tax bill is dischargeable bankruptcy so I’m preparing for the not-unlikely possibility that I’ll be forced to declare bankruptcy in late-middle age due to my legal education.
Is it hard to get by? What kind of sacrifices have you had to make?
Yes, it’s extremely hard to get by. I can’t afford rent or a car and can barely afford food. Anything extra like enjoying myself with friends, going to a movie, travelling, etc. — that’s all out the window for the foreseeable future and possibly for the rest of my life thanks to law school. I live with my parents. I don’t have a car. I don’t go out to socialize. I don’t date. I don’t buy new clothes. I don’t buy electronics. I don’t buy much of anything. I spend my free time working other jobs to put more money toward my debt. I do contract work for other lawyers, but the pay is very low and payment is sporadic.
What kind of advice would you have for somebody who’s applying to law school?
If you absolutely must go to law school even given the barrage of negative economic data about the legal industry and law school grads, there are only three reasons to go to law school: (1) the law school you were accepted to is named Harvard, Yale, or Stanford; (2) you got a full or very nearly-full scholarship; or (3) you have a family member or close friend who can 100% guarantee you a secure lawyer position.
If you go to law school on scholarship, it will likely be contingent on GPA and law schools (are rumoured to) put scholarship students in the same section, which is graded on a curve, meaning only 20 — 30% of scholarship students keep their scholarships.
When law grads lose their scholarships, they often stay and law schools know this because the individuals who run them are students of human behaviour. Law grads who lost their scholarships feel “pot committed,” to use a poker term, because they put in all the work to take the LSAT, to move to the law school, make new friends, etc. If you lost your scholarship, my advice would be to drop out immediately and don’t look back. They just want your money. If you don’t have a great 2L summer associate position lined up (and you won’t if you lost your scholarship), your law degree is going to be essentially worthless and you’ll struggle to get any type of job.
Some other advice:
(a) Law degrees are not portable. Employers will wonder why you’re not making “big bucks” as a lawyer. Shockingly, the atrocious legal employment market is not a fact understood by the general public. Employers may also believe you’re a loser because you were part of the 80% not in the top 20% who could not get a large law firm job. In addition, legal education does not give you many (if any) practical skills that are marketable to employers.
(b) Work for a law firm for at least a year before going to law school and see if it’s something you want to do. Many lawyers, even middle-aged lawyers, are broke, depressed, desperate, and have substance abuse problems.
(c) Law schools will lie to you. Do not believe a word that comes from law schools, law deans, or law professors. They are salesmen and they want you to hand them $US200,000 in non-dischargeable law school loans. That’s all they are interested in. They will tell you about a glorious career that awaits you. They will tell you lawyers are in demand and new technology will open the gates for prosperous new practice areas (3d printing, drones, etc.).
It’s all a bunch of hogwash. They will tell you that society needs lawyers and tell you stories about saving the poor and doing public interest work. This is also hogwash. Because public interest jobs are eligible for a 10-year government repayment plan, the jobs have become intensely competitive – as have JAG jobs [jobs in the Army]. You will compete against students from top 5 schools for these jobs and unless you go to a top 5 school, it’s going to be difficult to land these jobs. The main point to take away is to appreciate the reality that law schools are trying to sell you a product (the law degree). Law degrees are not in demand in the market so they’re trying new tricks to lure in more consumers. Be wary and use your common sense.
(d) Talk to practicing lawyers by themselves (not around their employer or other lawyers) about legal practice. Ask them if they would do it again if they had the chance. Don’t just speak with large firm lawyers. Talk with solo practitioners, personal injury lawyers, consumer bankruptcy lawyers, etc. Ask them if they enjoy being lawyers and if they would recommend that their child goes to law school.
(e) There is an enormous oversupply of JDs in the United States. Low-paying jobs routinely receive hundreds of resumes from desperate law school grads. Why would you want to join the herd?
(f) The demand for legal services is being decimated by a variety of factors: outsourcing projects like document review overseas to India, the proliferation of do-it-yourself legal services like LegalZoom which has killed demand for wills, business formation, and other tasks that was the bread and butter of small firms, technology like predictive coding is replacing the need for large armies of new lawyers, the huge oversupply of law grads, the wide availability of free information on the Internet means many people would rather do things themselves than pay a lawyer, the non-enforcement of unauthorised practice of law by bar associations means there are companies like LegalZoom and its ilk going around offering what is essentially legal services but they’re not lawyers or licensed in a jurisdiction which negatively impacts demand for licensed attorneys, and legislation like tort reform and medical malpractice reform efforts is making many types of lawsuits unprofitable and uneconomical which is also decimating many small firms.
And on top of all this, the economy continues to be awful regardless of what recent job reports state (dig into the numbers and see how many new jobs were “breadwinner” jobs, for example), which reduces the ability of many individuals to pay lawyers. The public simply isn’t buying what lawyers are selling for the most part.
(g) Law schools hire their own graduates for paltry wages in temporary jobs and include these poor people as part of their “percentage employed nine months after graduation” stats. They do it to induce a new crop of students to come to their law school so they can get their loan money, which as I’ve stated is all the law schools are interested in.
(h) The law school is friend while you’re applying and asking questions but will become hostile after the second year. They know they’ve got you and they could not care less what happens to you. When you first start law school, they will set up lunches with affluent attorneys but by your third year, the law school will invite you to events with small time lawyers talking about how they started a law firm by themselves with no money and survived. The whole process is expertly crafted from beginning to end and it’s not a mistake. They want you to have a small glimmer of hope when you get your degree but they could care less what happens to you after your final loan payment clears the bank.
(i) Even if you “win” the law school game and get a job at a large firm, it’s a job most people find miserable and the turnover rate is absurd – commonly 80% after five years. If this is the pot of gold at the end of the law school rainbow, why would you want to subject yourself to this?
(j) You may think that law grads for whom law school didn’t work out are just bitter and angry, but keep in mind that law grads do not have an economic interest in your attendance at law school. The law school always does. Keep this in mind and don’t forget it. Your loan money pays for the law school professor’s BMW.
I think most people are hapless fools to attend law school today, except in extremely narrow circumstances. If you’re ambitious, you should study to enter an industry that’s growing like technology or oil and gas. If you got an undergraduate degree that wasn’t yielding great economic benefits, don’t go to law school by default. Law schools know a lot of recent college grads aren’t happy about their job options and market themselves as a degree program that will get them on the fast track to the downtown high-rise corner office. Obviously, it’s utterly untrue.
Other than explicitly for-profit degree mills, there are very few other educational programs in America that take ambitious, smart 20-somethings and turn out distressed, indebted graduates whose lives will be destroyed by debt. If you go to law school, it’s not a remote possibility that you’ll end up back with your parents, in huge debt, desperately searching for work, and angry at yourself for wearing horse blinders and ignoring this information.
Did you think you’d end up making more money since you went to a top 20 school?
Yes, absolutely. The hype out there is that these degrees are in demand and valued by law firm employers. That’s true to a certain extent but if you’re part of the 80% not in the top 20%, your top law school degree is no better than the 75th ranked school where you could have got a full ride. My law degree has no power in the marketplace because I did not graduate near the top of the class. My recommendation would be to drop out immediately if you’re not in the top quartile after the first semester. Don’t wait until the second semester to rectify any B- grades. You need to get out and get a new life plan or else you’ll likely end up like me.
If you hadn’t gone to law school, what career path would you have pursued?
Hard to say at this point, but I probably would have explored technology more. I think getting a computer science undergrad or even community college degree leads to a more positive economic outcome than law school the vast majority of the time.
Is there any aspect of the law school bubble that you think is inaccurately portrayed in the media?
I think the percentage of graduates that are employed is not a statistic that the media should myopically focus on. It’s more important to know the salary of these jobs. Debt-to-salary ratio would be a great metric to understand. Also, I think law schools are under a moral duty to report what percentage of their graduates are on public interest payment plans or income-based repayment plans. Law schools can easily survey ALL of their students but they don’t because they know the picture will be ugly and won’t help lure new students to hand them loan money. Law schools have their graduates’ contact information and you can be sure, they will hunt them down like Hellhounds if the loans go unpaid.
The media reports about the percentage of law grads who are employed but this is a pointless statistic if grads are landing jobs like my $US1,000/month job, free internships where licensed attorneys have to essentially pay to work, or low-paid jobs where the law school hires its own grads. Also, bar passage rate is another meaningless statistic if the grad doesn’t have a job. Law school does not teach its graduates how to practice law and they need to be trained by experienced attorneys after graduation so just having a bar licence is meaningless to a new graduate.
Did you enjoy the law school experience, in spite of the debt you incurred?
There were fleeting moments of enjoyment interspersed between long episodes of sheer agony, stress, dramatics from fellow students, terror, and mostly boredom. Law school is basically a contest that you pay a life-altering amount of money to participate in. Many of the people who are attracted to law school have personality problems and are very antisocial. Don’t be surprised if you’re subjected to schoolyard bullying tactics by malcontents. I would have enjoyed myself more if I had studied for a Master’s or gone for an associate’s degree at a community college. I would have also maybe learned practical skills.
I consider law school a waste of my life and an extraordinary waste of money. I feel like I was duped and tricked. At the end of the day, it’s my own fault for being a sucker and I learned an extremely hard lesson. Because I went to law school, I don’t see myself having a family, earning a comfortable wage, or having an enjoyable lifestyle. I wouldn’t wish my law school experience on my enemy.
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