Bad Ideas, Harvard, Law Schools, Money, Student Loans

Debt: The Silent Killer

Crushing Debt Obligations.jpgI graduated law school in 2003, owing Harvard University just under $150,000. At the time, I had no idea what starting my professional career $150K in the hole would do to my life. I figured I’d work hard, make money, and pay my loans out of my general non-disposable income funds — kind of like my cable bill.

Seven years, two careers, numerous deferments and defaults, and one global economic meltdown later, I still owe a ton of money. Now, however, I pay it to various debt collection agencies and lawyers. When prospective landlords run a pro forma credit check on my application, they come back looking at me like I’ve been convicted of multiple war crimes. Every raise I’ll ever get will be eaten up by the collection agencies until sweet death allows me one everlasting and satisfying default. And, oh yeah, I don’t even want to practice law anymore — I quit my Biglaw job because, despite the debt, I really wanted to have a job that I enjoyed. So I essentially purchased a $150,000 disposable good. My time working in Biglaw was kind of like a very expensive vacation that I debt financed.

I mention all this because I am the cautionary tale prospective law students never want to think about. I mention all this because it is noble to crush false hope. I mention all this because there are way too many people poised to follow in my financially ruinous steps….

The ABA Journal reports:

The percentage of law students expecting to graduate with more than $120,000 in student debt is continuing its upward climb.

Twenty-nine percent of law students surveyed said they expect to owe more than $120,000 at graduation, up from 23 percent in 2008, 19 percent in 2007 and 18 percent in 2006. The findings come from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (PDF), which garnered responses from 26,641 law students at 82 law schools in spring 2009.

The insanity doesn’t end there. The kids in law school still haven’t added up what $120K of debt will do to their lives or their career choices:

Yet the huge debt load isn’t having much of an effect on career choices, the survey found. Of those 3Ls who expected to owe more than $120,000, 32 percent planned to enter public interest law jobs, compared to 27 percent of students who expected to graduate with no student debt. Similarly, 49 percent of those with the highest expected debt load planned to work at private law firms, compared to 52 percent of those with no expected debt.

Let me get this straight: you owe six figures, and yet 32% of you “planned” to get a job paying in the low five figures? That was your plan all along? Wow. That sounds even worse than my retirement plan of winning the lottery.

Obviously, some people expect to go into public interest because by now they’ve figured out that it’s pretty difficult to get a private sector job. But there are others who are actually choosing public over private, notwithstanding their debt load. As a person who once left a lot of money on the table for the opportunity to do something enjoyable and fulfilling, I can say without equivocation that I absolutely made the right choice.

But I can also tell you that those who want to walk that path better get used to generic alcohol and homemade apparel. Sure, you’ll show up at your five-year law school reunion looking rested and happy, but you will not be picking up any tabs or inviting anybody back to your apartment / basement / spider-hole.

Hey, if you are in law school already, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But I really hope prospective law students are paying attention. You don’t have to fork over this much money for a degree that isn’t nearly as lucrative as you’ve been led to believe.

If I could save just one lamb, maybe the screaming would stop …

Almost 1/3 of Law Students Expect to Graduate with $120K Debt [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of student loans

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