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The economics of law school

One of the most widely circulated articles in the New York Times of late asks: "Is Law School a Losing Game?" For days, it was the most e-mailed story in the paper, and it is still among the Top 10.

The gist is simple enough: It costs more than $40,000 a year just to attend classes at virtually any private law school. Even publicly supported law schools have raised their tuitions dramatically in recent years, on the theory that taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize the education of students who start earning $160,000 a year as soon as they graduate.

But there's the rub. Not everyone gets one of those jobs. In recent years, an increasing number of law students have not gotten jobs like those, because most large firms (which are the ones paying $160,000 to start) have cut back significantly on new hiring. The idea that you can just walk out of law school and into a six-figure job is, for many students at most schools, a painful fantasy.

There's an enormous amount of Wall Street-style accounting that goes into the reports on employment that law schools submit to the increasingly powerful organizations that rank them. So when you look at the numbers, you might think that almost everyone who goes to a half-decent law school is finding a great job after graduation. Spend any time with law students, and you come to understand that a lot of those jobs are not of the $160,000 variety, even if the schools are claiming that as the average income of their employed graduates.

My first job out of law school paid $13,909. Granted, it was a long time ago. But even then, it was substantially less than what my classmates were making in private practice and barely enough to cover my rent, food, gas and, of course, those student loans.

But so what? I didn't go to law school to make money. If that were my goal, I would've gone to business school, gotten a job in investment banking and yearned for one of those eight-figure Goldman partnerships.

I went to law school because I believed in the power of law to change people's lives for the better. And I have never been happier, professionally speaking, than when I was making almost no money but believed that what I was doing mattered.

If the primary reason you're applying to law school is because you want one of those $160,000 jobs, don't. Forget it. Like medicine, law used to be a sure-shot to making a very, very good income. Not anymore. The students who apply to med school know that there is no pot of gold waiting. There are many better and easier ways to make money. Kids go to medical school today because they want to be doctors, not because they want to be rich. The same rule should apply to law school.

Law school almost certainly is a losing game if what you care most about is money. In my book, that's probably a good thing. Many of my former students started out in those high-paying jobs and now feel trapped and frustrated. Many who didn't have that option have, through necessity, found careers they enjoy much more.

At a certain point in life, the escalators just stop running. When they do, you have to fend for yourself -- decide what you care about, what matters to you, what tradeoffs you are and are not willing to make. That's what being an adult is about. There are no guarantees. We all learn that sooner or later. And learning it in law school does not strike me as a losing game at all.

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