Anyone admitted to an elite law school is in good shape—by all means, go. Everyone else, however, should think long and hard about whether attending law school is the right decision. Specifically, one must take a close look at the financial implications of attending law school: how much money will be borrowed, the expected amount of monthly loan payments upon graduation, and expected income upon graduation. Too few prospective students sit down and crunch the numbers. An after tax monthly income of $3,000 (based on a gross income of about $45,000) sounds pretty good, until the $1,200 monthly loan payment is factored in (then there is rent, car payment, food, etc.).
The key is to be realistic. While many entering law students think (or hope) that they will be in the lucky top 10 percent that land the corporate law job, the hard truth is that 90 percent of graduates from non-elite law schools will not get these jobs, and therefore will earn far less over time. Given these long odds, a prospective student with a degree in engineering or business, or other fields with solid earning potential, or people who already have decent jobs, might be better off not going to law school.
The implications of this hike in price:
What does this mean for social justice?
One implication of the current situation is that becoming a lawyer is no longer the sure path to upward mobility that it once represented. It can still deliver this social benefit, to be sure, but the cost barrier is becoming increasingly burdensome. People from low income backgrounds may shy away from taking on a huge debt to attend law school. Not only will this be socially detrimental, it will be a regressive development for the legal profession, as lawyers will increasingly almost exclusively come from upper middle class and wealthy backgrounds (as was the case in the past).
This all holds true, not simply for potential Law students, but for ALL students. College is increasingly unaffordable, and the prospect of having to pay off such outlandish loans is frightening. There are numerous fields of study that are absolutely essential to a healthy vibrant society, but that require advanced (unaffordable) degrees, that we will no longer be able to service if we can’t graduate enough people for fear of debt.
My goal of getting a PhD in Mathematics is a case in point. Research in Mathematics quite often (though seemingly obscure and non-utilitarian) predates and informs research in physics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and medicine. But, it requires a minimum 7 to 10 (or more!) year commitment from your freshman year in college to the day you finally receive your PhD. The debt accumulated can be staggering. Certainly Graduate teaching positions help offset some of that, but they don’t exactly pay the bills.
If our society doesn’t start dealing with this problem, we may be left with an entire generation of people split between those who don’t have degrees, and those who do but can’t pay their bills. Imagine the economic and national security implications!