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Law School Success Stories: The Virtue of Thrift

Last month, we solicited law school success stories from you, our readers. We’re often quite critical of law schools around these parts. So, to even out the scales a bit, we’re going to be running a series of happy stories, focused on graduates who are glad they went to law school.

We’ve tried to organize the success stories under a few broad themes, to lend some structure to the discussion. Some of the themes exist in tension with each other, and not all themes will apply to all readers. By the time the series is done, however, we hope that the stories will collectively shed some light on the question of whether one should go to law school.

Let’s launch into our first collection of law school success stories. They could be grouped under the theme of “go cheap, or go home”….

In his controversial interview with Thomson Reuters News & Insight, for which he was widely excoriated, ABA President William Robinson shared this recollection: “When I was going to law school…. I sold my Corvair to make first-semester tuition and books for $330.”

Many people criticized Robinson for comparing his experience — he graduated from the University of Kentucky’s law school in 1971, with probably little to no debt — with the plight of law students today, some of whom leave law school with $150,000 or $200,000 in total educational debt (from law school and undergrad). But maybe he had a point? The success stories we’re about to share show that if you don’t go into too much debt in order to attend law school, and if you live frugally during and after law school, you can emerge with a valuable credential — one that will greatly increase your lifetime earning potential — and either no debt or manageable debt.

When people say they regret going to law school, they generally complain about the student loans. The stress of 1L year, the unpleasantness of gunners, and even the loss of three years of one’s life — these things, while annoying, aren’t that bad. What people really object to is getting saddled with six-figures of nondischargeable educational debt. If you read the so-called “scamblogs,” debt stands out as a central concern.

So what’s the solution? Don’t acquire too much debt. It’s not impossible; a significant number of law students achieve this feat. As we’ve mentioned before, more than 10 percent of law students will graduate with zero debt, and another 5 percent or so will graduate with less than $20,000 in student loans.

Some people can go to law school for free (and not just because their parents or spouse can pay for it). Here’s what one reader shared with us:

I am an attorney in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. I went to undergrad at West Point… and was an officer in the Army Engineer Corps for three years before my acceptance into a program known as the “funded legal education program,” which is exactly as great a deal as it sounds, if not better. The Army agreed to fund my legal education in my home state of Virginia at William & Mary in exchange for my commitment of 6 additional years of active Army service following law school. It was a deal that I was happy to make.

My time at William & Mary was a wonderful experience. I found the faculty to be engaging and accessible and the administration to be sympathetic and thoughtful. I was generally impressed with my fellow law students, who came from diverse backgrounds and who therefore had diverse interests. I had friends who went into public interest law, big firm law, small firm law, and many specialty areas of legal practice. As a student, I enjoyed the study of law. I thought the subject matter was challenging but extremely engaging, and my professors were always available to talk about classwork or the law or really anything, to be honest. They are the type of professors who take you out to lunch or who invite you to their homes for dinner. Williamsburg is a small town, but a good place to go to law school. It’s a low-key and low-stress environment, and cost of living is much lower than any large city. Because of the small size of the local community, William & Mary law students tend to develop close relationships because they do not have a lot of other people to socialize with. I made a lot of good friends with whom I remain close. I did not think law school was particularly stressful (admittedly I had been deployed to Iraq twice before law school so maybe my concept of “stressful” is different from other people’s), and I think that contributed to my success. I graduated [as one of the top ten people] in my class and was [a high-ranking editor] of the law review during my third year, which was a real honor and another very challenging but rewarding experience. I got along well with the other editors of the law review, and they have all gone on to do great things.

I graduated from William & Mary Law in 2008, and have not regretted my choice to go to law school for a minute. For two years, I was assigned to the U.S. Army Trial Defense Service, where I had the opportunity to represent Army soldiers in courts-martial and other administrative and nonjudicial proceedings. Being a trial defense counsel was easily the best working experience I’ve ever had. Army soldiers, even the ones charged with serious offenses, tend to be great clients to work with, and I had favorable interactions with military judges and prosecutors. I never had to question the integrity of any military lawyer I worked with (or against), and no one ever questioned mine. Everyone was dedicated to their respective roles in the criminal justice process. Everyone worked hard, took it seriously, and understood our respective roles. Nobody took my zealous advocacy personally. Of course there were big personalities, and occasionally big egos, that I encountered, but even those men and women were professional and competent. As a young JAG attorney, I got a lot of trial experience as compared to many people who go straight into big firm jobs; I’ve got around three dozen courts-martial under my belt, including several jury trials.

Currently I am a legal advisor for an Army colonel who commands a unit of about 2,000 troops, and I run a legal shop with several paralegals and a military prosecutor working for me. This has been another great learning and working experience for me. I miss the courtroom, but hope to return before too long.

I do not know how long I will stay in the military or in the legal profession, but so far it has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. I have found the practice of law to be a true profession — requiring a commitment to something greater than one’s self and a continued pursuit of knowledge. I’m perfectly happy living on the (relatively modest) salary of an Army lawyer (we get paid a regular Army salary; no extra pay for the law degree). If I ever do decide to do something else with my life, it won’t be out of disdain for the law or regret for any of my choices; it will simply be because I’m interested in other things, too. My time as a lawyer has been and continues to be enjoyable and fulfilling.

So there you have it…. Also, just to be clear, everything I have said is entirely in my personal capacity and does not imply federal or U.S. Army endorsement of anything. I just want you to know that the law is not an entirely cynical or selfish pursuit, and that, in my experience at least, there are many good lawyers out there working hard and doing the right thing for their clients every day.

Serving in the U.S. armed forces is an honorable calling (a point we should keep in mind as Memorial Day approaches). And if serving and protecting the nation can also help you get a free legal education, that’s just another argument in its favor.

Now, some might respond that a six-year commitment isn’t trivial. And others might say that military service isn’t for everyone.

So let’s take a look at some other law school success stories, still under the same theme of frugality….

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