Sunday, August 29, 2010

Would You Advise Your Child to Take on $150k in Debt to Go to Medical School?

Like flies on shit, the internet is full of non-practicing lawyers who are available, for a fee, or a speaking engagement, or a link to your blog, to tell you exactly how to successfully run a law practice - just don't ask them about theirs.

Then there is Carolyn Elefant. A real lawyer, with a real practice, and real advice for real lawyers with real issues.

Her latest post, hit a nerve with me.

She asks: Would You Advise Your Child to Take on $150k in Debt to Go to Law School?

I hate this question. I think it answers itself. More about that in a minute.

Seems a law student called the Solo By Choice Author recently and asked about starting a practice right out of law school:

Yet as we talked more, however, it seemed that the student had another, more basic question on his mind: whether to go further into debt, to the tune of $150,000, to obtain a law degree or to cut his losses.

Another, more basic question on his mind. Translated: Am I ever going to make enough money to pay back my loans?

He then asked Carolyn if she would have gone to law school "knowing what you do about the today’s economy and job prospects in the legal market."

Carolyn gave the answer that any real lawyer gives to that question. The answer that shows she went to law school to be a lawyer - not just to get a job that paid well.

For me, answering yes was fairly easy for a couple of reasons. Foremost, I really like practicing law. Corny as it sounds, I cherish my law degree and revel in being part of a profession that, as imperfect though it may be, is also comprised of amazing people with amazing stories. After twenty-two years in, I still get a thrill when I step up to the podium to argue an appeal. I still marvel that a lowly solo like myself can do stuff that matters, whether it’s preventing a multi-million dollar pipeline company from condemning my clients’ property (and winning attorneys’ fees to boot) or helping a financially troubled homeowner hold on to his house just a little bit longer or just showing up. Most of all, I’m amazed that with nothing more than my law degree and stubborn persistence, that I’ve been able to build something – a law firm out of thin air and on my own terms.

Like practicing law? Part of a profession? Thrill when I step up to the podium? Do stuff that matters?

Now whenever I talk about law students, I get the same silly responses - that I don't know what I'm talking about, that the law professors and hiring partners I speak to are all wrong - there is no sense of entitlement, and not every law student is in law school is there to get a "job."

I know that - so save your comments.

There are plenty of law students in school today that want to be lawyers. They went to law school to become prosecutors, appellate lawyers, family lawyers, public interest lawyers, and just generally to help clients in any given area resolve disputes.

But there is no denying that a significant amount of students are in law school for the sole purpose of getting a job that pays well. They could care less what they do, and for whom they do it. They invested six figures, and dammit, they want their six figure "job."

My answer to Carolyn's question is simple - if you want to be a lawyer, really want to be a lawyer, you shouldn't even be asking the question. If you are there to get paid back for your loan investment, drop out now and learn a trade or start a business, or get another degree. The profession doesn't need more empty suits who are there for the cash. We have enough of those.

Carolyn's decided to ask herself how she would advise her children on taking on $150,000 debt to become a lawyer:

The truth is, it’s hard to say. I suppose I’d start by suggesting that they avoid or limit debt to begin with, either by finding ways to work through school or perhaps choosing a less expensive law school that wouldn’t limit their opportunities. Then, I remind them that choosing law as a path to financial stability isn’t so much an option as it was back in my day.

Choosing law as a path to financial stability isn’t so much an option as it was back in my day.

Back in your day Carolyn, and back in my day, law students weren't graduating with an option of a six figure salary. It was the proliferation of the six figure salary that drove law school applications up. Is that a result of passion for law, or a desire to serve clients?"

I don't think so.

Continuing with the type of corny answer that the "where's my job, where's my six figure salary" law student laughs at, Carolyn says:

Still, if my daughters are committed to practicing law or have a feeling, after exploring other options that it’s right for them; if they’re passionate or excited about the prospect of serving clients – solving their problems and changing their lives or seeking justice and if they’re willing to be absolutely dogged in doing whatever it takes to succeed, then I’d tell them to go for it. I think.

Committed? Passionate? Excited? Serving clients? Seeking justice?


Oh man.

Here's my question: Why don't we ever ask whether we would advise our children to take on $150,000 in debt to go to medical school?

Medicine is a profession. Doctors have the option to make good money, and like law, some do, and many don't. But we never debate the loan issue when it comes to doctors.

And it's because medicine will always be a profession, while law has more and more become a dumping ground for college graduates looking for a good job.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Carolyn Elefant said...

Thanks for the mention, Brian. I am looking forward to meeting you next month.

jpm said...

Are you seriously suggesting that the price of the law degree is irrelevant to a prospective student.

At 200k, at 300k? at 500k?

You cannot be serious.
Heck...I like being a lawyer. Would I like it as much if I had to pay $3k a month to Sallie Mae? No. Of course any person should think long and hard about taking on huge amount of non-dischargeable student loan debt.

Funny. Brian is all ways telling us that law students did not do their he is saying "cost does not matter...the question is do you want to be a lawyer." You can;t have it both ways Brian.

Anonymous said...

At least physicians serve a useful purpose in society. A doctor can save your life. They can treat diseases and heal injuries. That is worthy of high pay and respect.

A lawyer is an amoral mercenary who will either defend or attack you (while make self-righteous noises either way) depending who is paying him. Yes, you need a few lawyers for a functional legal system. But this glut of lawyers is like a herd of breeding cockroaches. So you don't make 160K out of law school? Too damn bad. Maybe if you charged less than 200$ per hour you have more work.

I have a lot more empathy for people in honorable skilled trades.