I think it’s obvious by now that if the recession has taught us anything, it’s that student loans should be avoided like the plague. I doubt that anyone in 2006 would have foreseen that in 2013 there would be a massive, grassroots campaign to prevent an increase of 3.4% in student loan rates (most students probably didn’t even know what their loan rate was). The fantasy of a four-year degree being good enough to pay back large amounts of student loans is long gone and most college students are much more informed.
Yet, when it comes to law school, college students who previously fought for scholarships and protested tuition hikes suddenly decide to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance to become a lawyer. Numerous mainstream publications, including the Billfold, have detailed the plight of the naïve law student who applied to law school wanting to change the world or establish a solidly middle class life and is now saddled with unspeakable amounts of debt. What’s most frustrating about these stories is that law school is one of the few places where it’s possible to greatly reduce your student loans with minimal effort.
I’m a law student entering my second year of law school and I am attending on a full scholarship, which is saving me from accumulating about $110,000 in debt.
I didn’t have stellar grades or an LSAT score that would have gotten me into a top school. I didn’t jump through the hoops of submitting scholarship essays, or interviewing with the leadership of my school like most undergraduate students attending college on full rides. A month after I turned in my application, an admissions rep called me to say I was being offered a 100% scholarship, a full three months before the priority application deadline. The game of law school scholarships is played fast and loose, and it’s only getting worse.
While college grads flocked to law school in the early years of the Great Recession, the last three years have seen precipitous drops in the number of students applying to law school. Applications to law schools this year alone have decreased 13%. Faced with this kind of drop, the rational thing to do would be to offer fewer scholarships to make up for the lower student enrollment. However, the small number and relative similarities between law schools force them to compete with each other in order to maintain their ranking. Schools that wouldn’t have offered some students admission in previous years are now accepting and even giving out generous scholarships. The practice of elite students negotiating with law schools to offer more scholarship money or risk having them jump ship to a higher ranked school has now trickled down to average students.
Despite this ability to negotiate for higher scholarships, some students have used this opportunity to trade up to a more nationally recognized school instead of less debt. The general strategy for a large number of law students is to apply to a ton of schools and just pick the one with the highest rank, even if it is just up a few spots from some other schools you may have been offered scholarships. It is true that a few schools (some say top 14, top 6, or even just the top three, Harvard, Yale and Stanford) do offer unparalleled recognition and job prospects, but beyond that, rankings are generally meaningless. You may have a 10% or 20% better chance of getting a job as a lawyer, but is paying an extra $50,000 or $100,000 worth that chance?
Focusing simply on getting into the best school may seem like a smart decision because of the emphasis that the legal profession puts on credentials. I suggest that the smarter decision is one of restraint, refusing to allow yourself to believe that you will DEFINTELY graduate in the top 10% of your top school and get your dream job. The more prudent option is to look at something you know right now: how much debt you’re going to have when you graduate.
I chose to attend a law school not based on my chances of landing a $100,000-plus large law firm job, but based on where I wanted to live and settle after graduation. It’s not very well known outside of the Midwest, but establishing myself in a community that I value is worth much more than the prestige that comes with working at a “global” law firm. With a relatively small amount of debt, I can choose an area of law that is interesting and meaningful to me instead of being forced to take any job that will cover my loans. I may have a harder time finding a job starting out, but the freedom of not having so much debt hanging over me will make it that much less painless.
Although this change in the landscape has been a boon for me, I feel an odd sense of guilt for sidestepping the burden of debt. Even though I won’t graduate without tuition debt (assuming I don’t flunk out), there are still others that will. The only reason I can go for free is that other people have decided that it’s worth the risk. However, I’m really not sure if law school admissions can afford to throw things at the wall and see what sticks forever. If newly graduated liberal arts majors continue to decide that law school isn’t the best fallback option, eventually law schools are going to run out of money like everyone else.
In the meantime, things don’t have to be so doom and gloom for potential law students. I’m proof that it is possible to go to law school without being shackled to a lifetime of debt. No one really knows what the future of the legal profession will look like in the coming years, but at least some of us will be able to navigate it without having to worry about making huge monthly loan payments or dealing with confusing loan repayment programs.
Brian Smith is a law student from the twin cities, currently living it up as an (unpaid) summer intern in D.C.