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What does law school really cost?

By J. DeVoy

This weekend, my facebook and e-mail discussions focused on a New York Times piece about for-profit trade schools and their questionable value to students.  Many likened the trade schools at issue to law schools, which require a substantial investment for returns that, even in the best of times, are uncertain for all but the most elite law students.

While much is made of the financial cost of law school, that information is readily accessible.  With income-based repayment and the mounting reality that Something Must Be Done (TM) about ballooning student loan burdens, the financial slavery that would normally accompany mortgage-sized debt is diminishing — but not yet eliminated.

Too little attention is paid to the opportunity costs entailed in three years of law school.  I posit two reasons: First,  people who come to law school are exiting careers as teachers, engineers, or other white-collar McJob holders, and don’t see anything wrong with spending three years developing a new skill set.  Second, undergrads without any other options – the philopshy, psychology and sociology majors of the world who lack designs on academia – tend to default into law school without considering the life experiences they’ll forego.

I spent some time on facebook seeing what my non-law friends have done in the time I’ve been here, particularly those who graduated college with me in 2007.  Coupling these observations with law school-related data and other information, hopefully this paints a meaningful picture of just what the comprehensive cost of law school truly is.

Foregone income (@ $25,000/yr, post-tax): $75,000

Engagements: 36

Marriages: 20

Newborn babies: 7

Separations/Divorces: 3

Deaths: 0 (At least not permanently – it’s hard to keep down a Cornellian.)

Trips back home since beginning law school: 7

People who have moved cities in that time: 51

People who have moved cities more than once in that time: 12

School-wide GPA median: 3.1

Personal percentage of A-range grades: 47%

Rejection letters: dozens, at least

Summer associate hours billed, 6/1/09 – 8/7/09: ~440

Hours billed by teacher friends during that time period: none

Hours requirements of friend who just moved in-house to a MLB team’s PR department: none

Sent e-mails (.edu account): 1124

Hours in law library: hundreds

Median course outline length: 32 pages

Median final exam time: 3 hours

Average hours of sleep per night: 5

Eyesight change: -.25

Weight change: +<5 lbs.

Observed average weight change in others: +15 lbs.

Bench press change: -15 lbs.

Estimated miles walked to and from law school: 693

Apartment furnishing budget: $1,500

Pictures or other artwork displayed in apartment: 0

Times air conditioner has been used: 5

Times George Foreman Grill has been used: 7

Times feeling inadequate in class: many

Times wishing I’d chosen to work in another field: 1

Number of friends working in media who have been laid off: 0

Friends I’ve recommended attend law school: 1

iTunes library change (in GB): +73%

Change in suits: +25%

Change in dress shirts: + 65%

Change in neckties: +100%

Amount spent on delivery: $0

Amount spent at Chipotle Mexican Grill: unconscionable

Do I regret it?  Not a chance.  But, at 21 years old, upon pulling the trigger on this life plan – even before the economy collapsed – I did not realize the things that would happen in life, both to myself and others, between then and now.  Fortunately, I was suited for it.  Many aren’t.

Young people considering law school should consider the significant consequences legal education can have on their lives, potentially pushing back numerous milestones and accomplishments.  At a minimum, law school may be the difference between students moving back into their parents’ basements and moving back into their parents’ basements three years older, bearing six-figure debt.

Sometimes law students and prospectives discuss these costs and considerations, but seldom in one place or in quantitative terms.  Each data point, however, is a valid consideration; ties and shirts cost money, and certain things, like life experiences and health, are too valuable to be considered in purely monetary terms.

Hopefully 0Ls considering where to go and even what to do with their lives in September 2010 mull over this information.  Though unlikely, others could prevent regrettable and expensive decisions by contemplating these facts.  Indeed, law school is not for everyone.

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