A response to NYT’s article about New York Law School

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While I agree with much of David Segal’s NYT article, Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!, I was more interested in a subsequent response, entitled Critique of New York Law School misses point, written by Bradford Sussman.

I’m inclined to believe that those who are dissatisfied with their law school experience are typically those who attended law school for financial reasons only: those who attended not because they wanted to be specific types of lawyer, but because they wanted to be wealthy lawyers; or those who attended not because they wanted to be specific types of lawyers, but because they wanted a career with a particular salary. In closely reading many of the blogs, comments, posts and articles written by disgruntled law grads, I don’t recall ever seeing even one sentence in which the author is annoyed because their dream career as a particular type of lawyer was thwarted. Out of the popular anti-LS bloggers, I have absolutely no idea what their specific career goals were. Why did they attend law school? What jobs were they aiming for?  As far as I can tell, they were attending law school for a particular salary, not for a particular career.

I’m not suggesting that everyone must attend law school knowing exactly what kind of legal career they’re aiming for. Generalities still exist, and one can safely attend law school knowing that public service is the goal, or prosecution, or working in a small firm, or working as a solo. It doesn’t really matter, provided the applicant has made some kind of career plan and performed some kind of financial analysis prior to setting foot in law school on that first day of 1L. Law grads who went into law school knowing that their chosen/dream career would be working in a low-paid public interest job are less likely to be dissatisfied with their choice to attend law school (and what they paid for law school) than someone who attended law school with a vague goal of getting a job that pays well enough to knock out the student loans in a couple of years. Those who attend law school with a particular career in mind – the more specific the better – will have planned out how to repay their debt, or whether to even incur debt, prior to attending law school. Debt repayment should never be an afterthought.

In other words, law applicants knowing that they want to work as a solo practicing immigration law or bankruptcy law will have, prior to attending law school, figured out what the career prospects and salary expectations can be, and are less likely to experience any unpleasant career surprises after graduation. Those who attend law school with the goal of working in generic Biglaw are in for disappointment, as are those who attended law school based upon US News salary stats (accurate or not). The more specific the goals, the less chance there is of being angry after graduation that things didn’t work out.

Mr. Sussman is an example of this, and he writes:

I do not see my classmates or myself as victims who gullibly overpaid for our degrees in the midst of an economic downturn as the article implied. The economic decisions of law students are not necessarily simply rank versus price. I could have attended a top-tier law school but instead chose New York Law School because, between scholarships, an evening program that allowed me to continue working, the school’s proximity to the city’s legal infrastructure and its bar passage rate, it seemed to be the best value in education for me. I have found my classes to be excellent and my colleagues in the evening division to be impressive individuals whose varied life experiences added immeasurably to my legal education.  (Emphasis added)

We can see that Sussman’s analysis was spot on. He seems to know where he wanted to end up, and he planned for it. He chose a school that he could attend part-time to allow him to continue working, incurring less debt while gaining experience. He chose to attend a school that offered him the scholarship package he was looking for, again incurring less debt. He chose the location he wanted, and the opportunities he wanted. He wasn’t a slave to the rankings, and despite attending a lower-ranked school, his legal education has got him exactly where he wanted to be.

My advice is simple. Know why you’re attending law school. If it’s for an unspecific goal, you’re more likely to be disappointed with your decision, so wait a year or two and really focus on what you want to do when you graduate. Examples of such unspecific goals would be “to be a lawyer”, or “to earn a lot of money.” And if your goals are so undefined and fuzzy, then you can’t ever hope to plan and pick out the right school for you at the right price. All you can do is follow the advice to attend the highest-ranked law school possible, which may well be a school that doesn’t fit your financial goals.  High-ranked schools are less likely to offer you scholarship money, and less likely to have part-time programs.  You’ll therefore likely end up with far more debt.

But if you have a specific goal in mind before you apply, then chances are you’ll be able to plan accordingly. You’ll know how much debt your career can support before you sign your life away to Sallie Mae.

In short, don’t drift into law school without clear goals. In fact, don’t drift into any education program without clear goals. It’s a huge purchase in terms of time and money, and can’t be taken lightly. As we’re finding out, it’s easy to get burned by student loans.

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