The importance of meeting the requirements for admission to a top-tier law school cannot be overstated. Put another way, if your credentials are not good enough to meet the requirements for admission to one of the top 100, or maybe even the top 50 law schools in America, you should seriously consider another line of work. Going to a bad law school may still allow you to become a lawyer, but it may also buy you some forms of debt-driven misery that you can’t imagine or understand.
The truth is that most law students fund their educations with debt. Lots of debt. Much of the debt comes in the form of student loans. Unlike most other loans, student loans generally have to be repaid. Student loans are extremely difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.
So, there are these loans. These loans are pretty huge. As an example, the sum of the out-of-state tuition and fees at the school in the town where I practice is $44,000.00 per year. That’s tuition and fees. This does not include the cost of simple things like eating and a place to live.
Now, if Daddy has $150,000.00-$200,000.00 lying around and wants to send you for a legal education, it really doesn’t matter whether you meet the requirements to get into a good law school or you are going to a bad law school. If you are going to law school on somebody else’s dime, it’s all good. You get to be a lawyer. It’s not going to cost you anything but your time. That’s great. Go for it.
But most of us don’t have a Daddy who has $150,000.00-$200,000.00 lying around. Most of us take out these loans. Lots of them. And when the loans come due, you have to pay them. The problem is that most lawyers don’t make much money, especially not right out of school, and paying back loans is insanely difficult if you don’t make much money.
I’ll give you an example. I went to a top-100 law school. A buddy of mine graduated with a job paying $30,000.00 per year. He had $100,000.00 in loans to pay when he graduated, and it broke his back for a long time. He was paying nearly half of his paycheck out in loan payments every month for the first few years of practice. He stayed thin by living on Ramen noodles. It wasn’t much fun.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, most lawyers make more than that… it won’t happen to me.”
Yeah, and that’s where you’re wrong. When I graduated from college, the average student graduating in my major was making $50,000.00 per year. The average lawyer, across all experience levels in my state, was making $45,000.00. I remember these numbers very distinctly, in spite of the fact that it has been ten years, because they frightened me. Those numbers mean that there are lots and lots of lawyers out there who aren’t making any money. The average lawyer isn’t living the high life. The average lawyer has little income and lots of loans straight out of school. Now, the schools do a good job of hiding those averages so they can sell admission to unsuspecting victims.
You see, it turns out that the numbers that legal institutions quote on what their alumni are making in the job market are bogus. The way that they pump the numbers is to “forget” to get information from people who are unemployed or who aren’t making much money. If you do what I did and start for six figures, the guys at the career service office make sure to get you to fill out the form, so that they include you in the numbers. If you are my buddy making a third of that, the career services office somehow forgets to provide the form.
So, the numbers are cooked. Lawyers are making less than you think they are, and it’s particularly acute in the current recession.
Now, there is a way to beat the game… Maybe.
The dirty little secret of the law is that the top salaries for starting lawyers are concentrated at a handful of top schools. If you meet the requirements for admission to one of the top legal institutions, your chances of landing a job that will let you eat something other than Ramen noodles improve dramatically. You still have to do well at that law school, particularly in the really rough economy that we’re seeing now, but there’s hope.
The secret is a dirty secret because most of the bad schools that teach law won’t tell you that they are bad law schools and their graduates are unemployed and starving. You don’t find that out until you get out in the job market and learn it the hard way.