Student Debts

Some guy on Twitter was complaining that Above the Law focuses too much on the negative side of going to law school. Apparently this person mistakes us for a law school admissions office — people who ignore facts when they don’t fit their happy-clappy narrative. We do bring you some law school success stories when we hear of good ones. Do you know why those stories are “news”? Because law schools are so effective at leading people down a path of career frustration and financial ruin that when somebody beats the odds, it’s mildly noteworthy.

Law school is a good investment for some, and a terrible one for many. We say that all the time. The problem is that law schools do not give people enough information to assess whether or not they should go. The problem is that some law schools actively mislead people who are trying to make a sound decision. The problem is that even when law school “works out,” the tuition charged often vastly outstrips the value of the degree.

Sure, some people will succeed despite the high cost, misleading information, and weak job market. Law schools want you to think that those successful people are the norm, but really they are the outliers. (And, given the events of today, I guess I have to say that the folks who contemplate suicide are also outliers.)

This guy who recently bared his underachieving soul to Business Insider is the norm. This guy making $45,000 while carrying $200,000 of law school debt has the kind of life law students should prepare themselves for, regardless of what the admissions brochures and the guy on Twitter who made everything work out will tell you….

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Math is hard.

I’m somewhat reluctant to criticize other people’s bad financial decisions, having made so many atrociously dumb decisions in my own life. My financial stupidity isn’t even in the past tense — I have a brand-new PS4, but I’m waiting until the new year when my Flexible Spending Account resets to go to the doctor.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes an idiot to spot an idiot (I just made that up). At the very least, I’m somewhat uniquely qualified to identify which financial mistakes are “common” among the financially illiterate, versus the mistakes that take a special kind of dumb.

There are a few articles making the rounds today: there’s a Salon article trying to explain why law schools are comfortable scamming their students, and there’s a Forbes article making the stupid “now is a good time to go to law school” argument (which should make smart people roll their eyes). We’ve been down those roads before.

But we also have an article from a guy who says law school was the start of his financial downfall. He doesn’t blame law school, which is good, because I’m pretty sure he’s got nobody else to blame besides himself. And maybe his ex-wife….

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Regular readers of Above the Law are well aware of the bimodal salary distribution curve of starting salaries for new lawyers. Lawyers understand why the curve looks the way it does: there are a few “elite” firms that essentially engage in salary collusion at the very top (don’t everybody start thanking Above the Law at once), while most lawyers will struggle to find a job in the $40K – $60K range.

When non-lawyers see this curve, they are surprised. The curve popped up on Mother Jones the other day, and author Kevin Drum called the $160K spike “pretty weird.” Then the commenters on his post — actually HELPFUL commenters who managed to weigh in without personal attacks on the author — explained to Drum why it was so.

But that’s kind of the problem: people only become aware of the bimodal salary distribution curve after they’ve been to law school (and done things like become a regular reader of Above the Law). They don’t get the information before they commit to law school, when the information could be useful. In a world without time machines, hindsight is blind.

Still, even people who have already committed to their dread fate can benefit from an understanding of history. Do you know what the salary distribution curve looked like in 1991, during the last “great” lawyer recession? Do you think the people who are charging you money to go to law school have seen it?

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Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of the music stopping. It’s the sound of a tap running dry. Law schools are living in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and the party is wrapping up.

Professor Paul Campos estimates that 80 to 85 percent of law school are operating at a loss right now. Cratering law school applications put a stop on federally backed loan money that has been used to prop up outrageous law school tuition for years. In most industries, such realities would spur creative and substantive reform. Smart people would try to do something to fix the industry. Instead, people running law schools don’t think like that even when they have an opportunity for clarity.

As Fitzgerald writes: “arid for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speak-easies and thought of their old best dreams. Maybe there was a way out by flying, maybe our restless blood could find frontiers in the illimitable air. But by that time we were all pretty well committed; and the Jazz Age continued; we would all have one more.”

Maybe all deans can do now is to play it out to the bitter end….

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This takes balls. Not courage, but balls.

I’m using the term “balls” as a synonym for gall. I’m invoking the connotation of “stubbornness.” A law professor who can look at the current legal job market and the financial ruin suffered by so many law graduates, and fix his mouth to suggest that law school should take longer (and thereby cost more), really has balls. It’d be like Orson Scott Card thanking the producers of Ender’s Game for not casting “a little gay kid” in the title role.

I’m reluctant to even write this post and give this professor a wider circulation for his crackpot views, but I want the internet record to be complete, lest some person who hasn’t been paying attention happens upon the professor’s article and stupidly thinks, “This makes sense to me….”

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Would that law school was affordable so that all one had to do was sell off childhood memories. Alas, stories like this one are not about students piecing together law school tuition in creative and interesting ways. Instead, this is another story about a law school graduate who learned, too late, that getting a law degree doesn’t have anything to do with getting a job that allows you to afford the degree.

It’s funny, collecting toy cars is a harmless hobby. Collecting post-graduate degrees is the dangerous perversion…

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Despite calls for change from the highest of authorities, law school tuition is still too damn high. In fact, for most recent law school graduates (myself included), it’s financially crippling.

Sure, class sizes have gotten smaller — whether due to law schools’ attempts to rightsize or due to lack of interest from prospective students — but tuition hasn’t. Some schools have managed to keep it flat (albeit at too high of a level), but others have had the nerve to dramatically increase tuition in these trying times for legal education.

Given how resistant the old and gray occupants of the ivory tower are to change, perhaps some frightening predictions about the future of law school tuition will help them open their eyes. If you think you’re hurting for students to fill the seats now, just wait until it costs $78,000 a year to attend…

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Law school tuition goes up. That’s just what it does. It goes up during boom times, it went up during the recession. It goes up when lots of people apply to law school, it goes up when applications are at historic lows. If they could distill law school tuition into a pill, it would replace Viagra.

Law schools seem very good at estimating how much law school should cost. But are they as good at telling you how much you’ll need to spend while you’re in school besides tuition? Room and board, living expenses and transportation costs, these things go up too. But some students argue that when it comes time to estimating these costs — costs that are the basis for the federal loans that students take out in order to shelter themselves and eat while they’re in school — law schools set the bar unreasonably low. From the law school’s perspective, student expenses are relatively flat… it’s only the tuition that needs to go up.

Tipsters pointed out one school for a case study of this phenomenon….

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Earlier this week, we asked readers to submit possible captions for this photo:

On Thursday, you voted on the finalists, and now it’s time to announce the winner of our caption contest…

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Caption Contest Winner: Law School Loans Will Be The Death Of You”

Earlier this week, we asked readers to submit possible captions for this photo:

Let’s have a look at what our readers came up with, and vote on the finalists…

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