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A Loser’s Game? : Weighing the Costs of Applying to or Attending Law School

Is Law School a Losing Game?, by David Segal, has been making its way around the  internet since it was published last week on the New York Times website.  In it, Segal reports on some of the faulty accounting practices many law schools in the U.S.  employ to calculate misleading  graduate employment rates in order to encourage perspective to students to apply to their programs. Law schools all over the U.S. have been reporting remarkably high rates of employment for recent grads despite the depressed economy and the fact that quite a few major law firms are scaling back and even cutting altogether their recruitment programs as well as outsourcing many entry level positions to other parts of the country or abroad. The piece argues that schools are pressured into inflating their numbers in order to better compete for applicants. These figures are published in U.S. News, which then ranks law schools (partly) according to graduate employment rates annually. This can greatly  influence a student’s decision to apply to one school over another or whether to even apply to law school at all. Because law school tuition fees are amongst the highest of any graduate or professional program for most universities they’ve become an important source of revenue, and this has given schools a strong financial incentive to report inflated job rates or misrepresent their law graduates’  employment prospects.

Now while no one forces someone to apply to law school, let alone barrow the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to attend, Segal does draw attention to an important byproduct of these practices. As a result of these misleading numbers it is difficult for prospective law school applicants to evaluate honestly and realistically what the value of pursuing a law degree might be for them.

Interestingly,  many students who end up assuming a debt load that may be far beyond their capacity to repay, are students who come from backgrounds where they may be the first in their families to pursue a law or professional degree. For me this offers a possible explanation as to why some students may feel comfortable taking on such large debts. Maybe never having had model (like someone they know who is currently in law or who has pursued a degree) first generation law  applicants and professional degree students may be less aware of the financial pitfalls of trying to obtain an advanced degree.  Also, these students may not have  the sort of financial support system, like family or friends, to help them manage their debts.  I guess I’m wondering to what extent an applicant’s or student’s socio-economic background may play in their likelihood to take on huge student loans in order to pursue a law degree and what the financial consequences for them are after they do. How aware are most students of the financial consequences  of amassing such large debts? The title asks is “Law school a losing game?” and I’m wondering if  the price of attending law school and the seeming tendency among universities to view perspective students as perspective cash cows make it one for those whose only hope of attending is contingent on their ability to take out potentially  financially crippling  student loans?

Coincidently, I came across this article  by Susan Goldberg published on the Canadian Bar Association  website, which indirectly provides a Canadian answer to some of these questions. Essentially, many Canadian perspective law students  in order to avoid the debt end up not applying to law school at all and those who do are forced to compete in already saturated areas of law in order to secure a high paying salary that will allow them to pay down their debts as quickly as possible.

Goldberg argues that tuition fee hikes scare away potential applicants who belong to traditionally marginalized  groups in Canada, specifically women, visible minorities, and people belonging to aboriginal groups. She points out  how in some provinces “tuition fees at professional schools have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled in recent years[,]” with U of T Law being the most expensive at $12,000 a year (not including books, living expenses, etc.).  Add those fees to existing debt incurred during undergrad and Goldberg’s article paints a pretty grim picture. A student’s debt could easily balloon to over $100,000 dollars without interest. This may have two worrisome effects,

1) That these tuition fees make attending law school  nearly impossible for many Canadians.

2) Those who do enter law may be forced to work  in already overcrowded fields like corporate law instead of less crowded but equally vital areas such as poverty law.

The social consequences of the second point are twofold.  In an effort to pay down their loans as quickly as possible many students take jobs in areas where the pay is high rather than in areas where there is real need ( and demand)  for legal professionals.  As a result not only are poorer and marginalized groups less likely to apply to law school they are also less likely to be able to access affordable legal help when needed, creating a legal system that incidentally tends to ignore their needs both in the processes of creating laws and upholding them.

Schools justify their fee hikes by arguing that revenue generated by the high tuitions allows them to not only compete nationally but internationally by enabling them to hire renown faculty and provide their students with excellent resources. UofT  Law  School, for example, according to its dean, Ronald Daniels, aims to be among the top five institutions in North America. In order to achieve that goal Daniels argues that they need to charge the kind of tuition that will allow them to  attract top notch faculty  with competitive salaries and pay for excellent resources. While this sounds reasonable the article also provides quotes from deans like Victoria Meikle, Assistant Dean(Admissions and Placement) at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, who argues a school does not necessarily need to charge high fees to be a top ranking institution. For example, there are tuition freezes in both BC and Quebec ( where McGill  is located) and yet, McGill’s law school consistently ranks in the top three, in Canada,  each year. However, even tuition at McGill  can be close to $4,000 to $ 8,000 per year for in and out of province students to attend respectively. So, for many, even those law schools may still be financially out of reach.

I may have gotten a little sidetracked but if these articles underscore anything is that a law degree is a very serious financial undertaking and the effects of high tuition fees are both personal and social, making the decision of not only which law school  to apply to  but if you should apply to law school  at all  that much more complicated. To get into law school, especially your top pick, is an emotionally fraught experience. Knowing that out of the thousands people who applied you were one of the few to actually get in puts that much more psychological pressure on you to go forward without really thinking it through. While it may feel shameful to admit it, for a lot of potential applicants this may also be one of the factors pushing you into a lot of debt. I know it is for me at least. Yes of course I have an interest and deep respect for the law and legal system, but I also can’t deny that the  specialness (?) of being accepted into law school is also motivating me to apply. I mean I get “Ooohs”   just for mentioning I would like to apply to law school or that I’m taking my LSATs. Imagine what kind of reaction I would get if I were to actually become a lawyer?! But what I can’t imagine away is my debt and potential debt. I finished my undergrad close to $50,000 in the hole. My net worth is negative – $50,000. To paraphrase Louis C.K, I would have to work off $50,000 (plus interest) just to be poor, and these two articles have really made me think about how I would cope with having to work off an additional $100,000 (plus interest)  under the best circumstances and the best job prospects, let alone in this shitty economy, especially since I’m not exactly leaning towards a career in corporate law. Its definitely something to consider.



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