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Law School Success Stories: High Risk, High Reward

Last month, in the inaugural post in our series of Law School Success Stories, we focused on the theme of “the value of thrift.” We outlined a “low risk” approach to law school, profiling happy law school graduates who secured their law degrees without going into excessive debt — under $50K upon graduation, which is the recommendation of Professor Brian Tamanaha, author of a new book (affiliate link) about reforming legal education.

Today we’re going to cover the flip side: the “high risk, high reward” approach to legal education. In some ways this is a dangerous theme. The promise of Biglaw bucks is the siren song that leads many to crash on the rocks of joblessness and crippling debt (as Will Meyerhofer discussed earlier today).

Some law schools clearly exaggerate the ability of a legal education to increase a person’s career prospects and earning potential. But for some subset of law students, however small, law school does turn out to be a golden ticket. Their numbers might be inflated, but they do exist. Law school has allowed these individuals to increase their incomes dramatically. And — shocker! — many of these J.D. holders actually enjoy their lucrative new jobs.

Read about a young woman who went from being a secretary to having a secretary — along with a six-figure paycheck. Meet a young man with a rather unmarketable undergraduate degree who now, thanks to law school, makes bank in New York City.

Here’s another way of describing today’s success stories: “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you….”

Back in a 2010 post in defense of going to law school, I discussed the “lottery ticket” rationale for getting a law degree:

Even if you go to a law school that’s not very high in the rankings, if you kick complete ass excel academically there, you have a perfectly good shot at a large law firm job. If you are in the top 10 percent — or top 10 people, or top 5 people, depending on where you go — you can get a job at a place like Cravath or Sullivan & Cromwell….

Granted, you would have had a better shot had you graduated in 2006. But you still have a shot — which can’t be said if you don’t go to law school at all. In this sense, then, law school is like a lottery: you need to be in it to win it. And make no mistake; there are winners out there.

Here’s one of the winners, the former secretary who is on her way to becoming a millionaire. Here’s how she responded to our success story questionnaire:

1. Where you graduated from law school: Stanford Law School

2. When you graduated from law school: 2010

3. Why you are happy with your decisions to go to law school:

I graduated from Stanford Law with about $40,000 in debt total. I worked throughout my law school years, and of course during the summer. During my 2L summer, I used 3/4 of my money to pay off some of my loans (the amount that was accruing interest). Six months after I graduated, I paid off the remainder of my loan (in total, I paid about $100 in interest). And this was on my clerkship salary, not a six-figure firm job.

While in law school, I lived very frugally. I once slept on someone’s sofa for a month because I did not want to pay $1,000+ a month on rent (I eventually found a place for about $500 a month). I parked my car a mile from the school for free so that I did not have to pay for parking (I also got free exercise from walking two miles a day without having to pay for a gym membership). I only bought used books and sometimes no books at all and spent my free time at the library studying from borrowed books. I did not go out to eat and I did not go shopping once. When I was clerking, I lived with a roommate so that I could save money to pay off my loan.

Now, I’m an associate at a big firm with a six-figure salary and a federal clerkship under my belt. If I did not go to law school, I would not be able to get this kind of job. Prior to law school, I was making about $36,000 a year as an administrative assistant. Sure I work gruesome hours now, but I enjoy what I do and the hours go by pretty quickly. I also know that if I want to switch jobs, say work for the government or go in-house, the doors are open for me.

Yes, we know, we can read: she went to Stanford Law School, the #2 law school in the country according to U.S. News. In this sense, she “won” the lottery back when she matriculated. Many of the most outspoken critics of law school will admit that going “HYS” — Harvard / Yale / Stanford — makes sense for a lot of people, especially people who can graduate with just $40K in debt, like this SLS alumna.

So let’s slide down the totem pole of law school prestige, and hear the success story of a graduate of a first-tier but non-HYS institution….

(hidden for your protection)

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