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Salaries and Debt

instead of telling you how much debt you might accumulate in your three or four years of law school, I'm going to tell you why I believe this number is irrelevant.

Irrelevant?!

Yes, irrelevant. There's no way to know what your debt load will be, primarily because we'd need an incredibly accurate crystal ball to predict what the economy will be four years from now. Who, in 2000, knew that the World Trade Center would be destroyed, bringing the economy down with it? Who knew that the banking crisis of 2008-2010 would decimate the job market for people who started law school in 2006 and 2007?

it is a truism that supply and demand in a particular job market is cyclical: the media reports the shortage of computer programmers, teachers, or lawyers; thousands of people rush to join that field in hope of earning big bucks (when they should instead have thought about what they might enjoy doing); their influx creates an excess supply, driving salaries and available jobs down. Then the media will report that this is a horrible career choice; people interested in chasing a dollar will chase it someplace else. And in two years the cycle will begin again.

So what sense is there in talking about a "good job"? This question is as deeply philosophic as whether democracy is a good form of government.

"Good" jobs could be defined in terms of salary; if they were, police officers and trash collectors would be high in the social strata. Since they are not, we know that social status is not connected simply to salary.

The prestige of a job can be equated with a level of education and training, placing doctors and lawyers at the top of the employment heap. In this context, a good job is one in which you make more money than other people in the same field. But there's no way to compare salaries within this field to those in some other area of the economy. How can we compare a doctor's salary to a computer programmer's, or a malpractice lawyer's to an entertainment lawyer's?

There are many other factors in the salary and debt equation that are unquantifiable. Do you interview well? Did you achieve one of the "status symbols" of law school -- moot court or law review? Were you at the top of your class or the bottom?

These factors have as much relationship to your salary as the name of the school itself, and there's just no way to evaluate yourself in these variables, because you don't know the group of people against whom you must measure yourself. An average person at a highly competitive college may be a better law student than the top person at a weak college.

In my experience, people aren't very good at evaluating themselves either in relation to their personal skills or in considering the quality of their education. People who think they are weak writers are often very demanding of themselves, while people who think they are good writers are almost always mistaken. The same is true of evaluations of schools; every college is a top school in the eyes of its student body.

My honest opinion, therefore, is that predicting your salary and your debt is like predicting when the next earthquake will strike San Francisco. Knowing that there will be one has nothing to do with answering the important questions: when, where, and how severe. And that which cannot be predicted is irrelevant. Q.E.D.

Scholarships

Another major factor in confusing the issue of salary and debts is financial aid. Most schools give the bulk of their aid as loans; a much smaller portion is given in the form of scholarships or grants.

The difference between scholarships and grants is of some importance to the institution, and may matter to you for your résumé, but makes no difference to your wallet. Both are funds that are given to you that you need not repay.

Scholarships can make an enormous difference in evaluating your debt load. Many schools have a few full-tuition scholarships; if you're lucky enough to get one, you'll graduate law school virtually debt-free.

While most scholarship and grant money is earmarked for "merit," (a/k/a/ high LSAT scores), many schools have a component set aside for "diversity," which is not defined exclusively as racial and ethnic minority, but does tend to focus on them (as I note in my broader discussion of diversity). However, people like Roger Clegg have chosen to create problems for schools that target minority populations in any way. I decline to aid such litigation, and therefore have removed the data previously included on minority funds. If you're a member of a racial or ethnic minority group and want information, email me.

Military Veterans

Do you know about the Yellow Ribbon program? If you've served in Afghanistan, it may help you. Check it out.

Summer Jobs

Most law students scramble to find any law-related job after their 1L year. Often these jobs are volunteer, or at a minimal stipend. A lucky few, often people attending the "top 10" law schools or those who have great family connections, land jobs paying upwards of $2,000 a week in their first summer. And the amount of debt you'll graduate with looks very different if you make $20,000 in a single summer. So don't declare a top law school unaffordable without asking questions about summer salaries.

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