Student Loans

I know lots of guys fantasize about boinking “barely legal” teenage girls. Not me, I like women: fully formed, adult women. There’s just something unseemly about older men salivating over girls who could have been in high school a year ago. Call me crazy, but it’s just more interesting as an adult to be intimate with other adults.

Similarly, I like my lawyers to actually practice law. There’s something unseemly about watching market forces turn law school graduates into glorified paralegals and secretaries. Call me a prude, but there’s just something gross about seeing young, nubile attorneys going around begging for document review positions. These people spent three years of their lives and six figures of their (or someone else’s) money to get law degrees; they should have something to show for their efforts.

But even if I don’t like to look, I can’t deny that this is happening. We are all living in a time that will be studied by future generations: a time when attorney career paths bifurcated, between traditional partnership-track associates and what I’ll call “barely legal” career paths….

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It seems like the number of applications to American law schools is finally going down. Maybe that number would go down even further if prospective American law students knew more about the magical land up north.

Yes, we’re talking about Canada. America’s homely cousin might not be as hot, but she’s got a great personality and is nice and funny. Having already figured out how to provide health care to all of its citizens, Canada seems to have also come up with a system of legal education that doesn’t hobble its young lawyers before they even start practice.

Canada’s key to success seems to be actually regulating its law schools and assuring a basic level of high quality across the board. There are only 20 law schools in Canada, which means that (gasp) not everybody who wants to go can go. Yet despite demand, Canadian law schools also cost less than their American counterparts.

It appears that much like their health care system, not every Canadian gets exactly what they want precisely when they want it. But their magical ability to behave like adults when faced with delayed gratification somehow makes things better for everybody. Chant “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” all the way to debtor’s prison if you like, but clearly the Canadians are doing something right — and maybe we could learn from them here in the States…

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We talk a lot about how expensive legal education is and how prospective law students need to think rationally about their debt exposure before they try to finance a legal education.

I’m not sure if this law student did any of that thinking. But I am sure that her solution to the high cost of legal education is pretty ridiculous. After selling off most of her “excess” possessions on eBay, she decided to use the site to solicit direction donations for her legal education. She’s not taking on more debt, she’s not going out and getting a job — she’s asking for charity.

Welcome to legal education in the new decade…

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It makes sense for anyone contemplating law school to make sure he or she has a passion for the profession. Your friend would have to consciously be avoiding stories about unemployed law school graduates if she knows nothing about this. But perhaps, since you say she is a worrier, she doesn’t want to dwell on what the world will look like three or more years from now when she graduates. She wants to be a lawyer, so there’s no reason for you to fill her with your doubts.

— Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, answering a Slate reader’s question about whether she should warn her friend and roommate about the perils of going to law school.

It isn’t easy to wring a correction out of the New York Times. The Gray Lady is notoriously stingy when it comes to confessing error. [FN1]

But David Segal’s very interesting and widely read article about the perils of going to law school — which still sits at the top of the NYT’s list of most-emailed articles, several days after it first came online — now bears a notable correction…

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Well, how much debt do you have?

Wow. Guy goes to law school, guy racks up a huge amount of debt, guy has no idea how he’ll pay off his debts. Sound familiar? Okay, here’s the twist: the guy failed the “character and fitness” component of the Ohio bar because he has no plan to pay off his loans.

What the hell kind of legal education system are we running where we charge people more than they can afford to get a legal education, and then prevent them from being lawyers because they can’t pay off their debts?

Because it’s not like Hassan Jonathan Griffin was in a particularly unique situation when he went before the Ohio bar. A year and a half ago, we wrote about a man who was dinged on his character and fitness review because he was $400,000 in debt. That’s an extraordinary case. Hassan Jonathan Griffin owes around $170,000. He has a part-time job as a public defender. He used to be a stockbroker. He’s got as much a chance of figuring out a way to pay off his loans as most people from the Lost Generation.

If Griffin can’t pass C&F, Ohio might as well say that half of the recent graduates in the state don’t have the “character and fitness” to be a lawyer…

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Like many of you, I read the epic New York Times article on law school debt over the weekend. To answer the most consistent question I’ve received in the past 36 hours: no, I don’t feel like I’ve “won.” And I don’t feel like the NYT has somehow validated some of my commentary over the past two years.

Because the New York Times article, by David Segal, simply captures a story that everybody who has been paying attention already knows: law students are getting themselves into serious debt problems, with no plan for how to pay the debts back. This we know.

But there are things we don’t know. How do you get prospective law students to pay attention to the harsh economic realities before they sign up for law school? What can be done to make those economic realities a little bit less harsh? And what can be done after somebody makes a ruinous investment in higher education?

Now, as far as getting prospective law students to pay attention, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe a big-time article like this in the NYT helps. We already know, however, that unless it shows up in the U.S. News Law School Rankings, prospective law students don’t really care.

So let’s focus on the other questions…

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I have no idea why this is blowing up today, but it looks like the mainstream media just figured that maybe going to law school isn’t the most awesome idea (especially in this economy).

On New Year’s Eve, John Carney — our former colleague, from his days at Dealbreaker — noted on CNBC’s NetNet that the ABA issued a paper entitled The Value Proposition of Going to Law School (Word document). NetNet called the report an official warning from the ABA about the perils of going to law school. I’m always happy to see that particular report get a little bit more coverage. We linked to Carney’s post in Morning Docket on Monday, when we got back from break.

But then it seems that Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway noticed Carney’s report, and he did a story on it. And then Megan McArdle of The Atlantic noticed the Outside the Beltway report, and she did a story on it, today. And in the meantime the ABA paper has been linked and retweeted a bunch of times.

And that’s all well and good, except for the fact that the damn thing came out years ago and was widely discussed in the legal blogosphere back in 2009. So, umm, while it’s great that everybody is interested in this party, there hasn’t actually been any new news about the matter over the last few days….

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I like it when the mainstream media drops by to take a look at the student debt crisis. I’d like to think that, unlike the housing bubble, this impending crisis can be avoided with sensible government regulation and individual actors making smart decisions about their own financial futures.

The government regulation is, strangely, the easy part — Congress will care that younger Americans are being crushed under their own debt load, or it won’t. This seems to me like a non-partisan problem. So if our elected officials get a clue (a pretty big “if”), then perhaps something positive will happen.

Getting individual actors to behave in their own economic self-interest is the hard part. Trust me, I talk to students thinking about going to law school almost every day. These kids seem to be allergic to facts and figures. But maybe with enough media spotlight, families will actually start thinking about how their kids are going to pay off their debts, and behaving rationally.

There was a big article on MSNBC.com yesterday showing just how far we have to go, as a country, to get the student loan crisis under control…

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How much prestige does your school serve?

How far are we from getting real answers about the value proposition of going to law school? Pretty far, if you read the New York Times Week in Review. An article by Jacques Steinberg illustrates that researchers don’t even really know if receiving an elite undergraduate education is worth the price.

The Times asks: Is going to an elite college worth the cost? And it comes up with this answer: “It depends.” Thanks NYT. Is mainstream, old media publishing dying a slow death? It depends on how many people want to read articles like this on their Kindles.

Oh, I kid, Grey Lady. It’s not particularly satisfying, but the article provides support for believing whatever it is you believed before you read the article. Do you think that going to the most prestigious school that will accept you is the better long-term choice for your career? Great, you’re right. Do you think that, depending on your family situation, going to a cheaper state school is the right choice for you? Great, right again. Do you think that successful people will succeed? Awesome! The Times likes circles too.

Yay, everybody made the right decision. And since most of the research was done on people who made college choices ten years ago, the ridiculous inflation in the cost of education only makes it more obvious that people should do the right thing — whatever the hell that might be….

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