When law deans and other law school defenders talk about the high cost of legal education, they try to justify the price in economic terms. They cite ridiculous and largely unsupported figures about the value of a law degree. They point out the cost of the faculty. Explicitly or not, they don’t see a problem with charging the absolute maximum that the market will bear. They feel no shame for enticing young people to invest in law school by any means necessary, fair or unfair.
But the unreasonable cost of law school doesn’t just play out in purely economic terms. Students who graduate with a mountain of debt pay the human costs of hopelessness, deferred dreams, and often the burden of having to rely on parents long past the point when they had hoped to be self-sufficient.
We tend to focus on the plight of unemployed law graduates, but it’s always important to remember that “winning” and landing one of the few Biglaw jobs out there that even gives you a shot to pay off your debts can be pretty awful too. The high debt makes many law graduates feel like indentured servants, forced to work jobs they don’t want, in order to service their loans.
I think there are a lot of people who will empathize with this law graduate from a top school with a Biglaw job who feels like even death isn’t a suitable way around his law school loans…
Here is a disturbing email that Above the Law received today:
So I am an NYU grad who is starting to realize that my time in my big law job will probably end sooner rather than later — and that realization has sent me into a bit of a tizzy.
I see a therapist weekly (have a history of depression) and I told him that I’m starting to feel very depressed/anxious about my career prospects, and he asked me if I was thinking of hurting myself; before I could even contemplate the question, I immediately, almost reflexively, said: “I would never stick my dad with my loans like that.” (He cosigned my loans).
… I just thought it perfectly sums up the misinformed decision to go to law school and take out heavy debt (I have about ~145k remaining…) for a chance at a big law job that likely will last less than five years. The immediate, instinctive reason I gave for not offing myself was not something optimistic about the future or because I love my friends/family; instead, it was because I can’t stick my father with the financial burden of my student loan debt after everything he’s done for me.
The tipster goes on to explain that he’s just feeling “slightly down,” and is not actually having suicidal ideation… so that’s good. Let’s assume that we are just talking about a person who is saddened by the enormity of debt and not a person who needs to seek immediate medical attention. (Though, if you are feeling depressed and overwhelmed, please please please contact a health care professional.)
The thing is, this tipster isn’t alone. There are lot of people in Biglaw who feel the similar sting of mortgaging their life for a shot at the brass Biglaw ring, only to find out that the job isn’t nearly worth the cost.
Let me stop speaking for other people. I felt that way. As a Biglaw associate, I felt locked in. I had invested an enormous amount of time and money — time and money that I could never, ever get back — to become qualified to do something I hated doing. It was a waste of my time, and a crushing waste of all the sacrifices my family had made to give me the opportunity. Was I suicidal? No (thank God). Homicidal? A little bit, sure. “Slightly down”? You betcha! With a healthy dose of alcoholic self-medication as I depressively tried to figure out why I couldn’t be “happy” making more money tan anybody in my entire family ever had.
Don’t act like this tipster and I are the only ones. Debt hounds a person like a monster living under your bed who comes out every night to remind you of every mistake you’ve ever made.
My final solution was to say “screw it,” not to life, but to debt. I decided to try to live the life I wanted to live instead of living my life to service my debts. And it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I make less money at 35-years-old than I did at 25-years-old (which is backwards and obnoxious), and I have a credit rating you can count to with your hands and feet. I can’t even get a Discover Card. I’m probably never going to own property. And when it comes time to pay for my kid’s college, the government loan agencies won’t take into account that his 50-year-old dad is still paying off his own educational loans.
And quitting was still the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had to. My answer to my personal Kobayashi Maru was that the needs of the one (me) outweighed the needs of the many, many creditors.
Whatever law school costs, it’s more than dollars and cents. Going to law school is wedding your life to a certain path, and if that path doesn’t lead you to where you want to go, you’ll have hell to pay. But it’s against that backdrop that legal educators use misleading statistics to entice people, and then jack up tuition to the point that people don’t feel they can get out.
But you can get out. Don’t choose suicide, choose life, your life, which you can live very happily without Biglaw, even with insurmountable debt.