Consensus seems to be building, and it's not in favor of the law schools. Many reports have been issued lately from a variety of sources, but they all make the same point: law schools sucker kids, charge too much, and don't produce results.
Graduate school appears to be a common solution to a slow economy. Since you can't find a job and make any money, why not borrow money and go into debt? Seems logical. The Law School Admissions Council and the American Bar Association reported recently that the number of hopefuls who took the Law School Admissions Test in October 2010 was the second-highest number of takers ever.
At the same time, law schools are raising enrollment and raking in ever more money in tuition, while finessing employment-after-graduation figures which mislead incoming and potential students, or so says columnist David Segal, who published a long and scathing critique of the whole system in the New York Times last week. It includes interviews with former students, professors, deans and other administrators, and representatives from the ABA and US News & World Report (famous for its controversial rankings). He accuses law schools and administrators of (among other things) being completely incapable of policing themselves, which is not a good sign in a profession that - ironically - relies primarily on self-policing for regulation and detection of ethics violations.
In a lot of ways, I think he's right. The rankings are a game, and administrators fudge the numbers so they can up their stats. But at the same time, anyone who enters a three-year graduate program knowing tuition is $40,000 per year has to know that they're going to graduate with at least - at least - $120,000 in debt. It's not rocket science. And that $120,000 figure is assuming the students' other costs (shelter, food, books, car payments, health insurance, etc.) are covered by someone else. If that's not the case, you can probably tack another $100,000 or so onto the total amount due, assuming they are wise enough to live like a frugal student for the duration.
Where I think Segal's argument falls a little short is in discussing the financial responsibility of the students. Most student loans are 10-year loans. If you take out $120,000 in loans with a 10-year repayment plan and 6.8% interest, any online loan calculator (they are available here, here, here, here, here, and here, among other sites) can tell you that your monthly payment will be $1,380.96. No kidding here, folks; that is a substantial payment. But I figured out that number in about 30 seconds. Now, it's true that if you're taking out multiple federal and private loans, the total monthly payment for all of them is harder to calculate. One might need a pencil and paper to record some of the numbers, so that you can add up the totals at the end. But really, this isn't that complicated. If I can do the math, anyone can.
I think the point Segal makes well, though, is that the schools allegedly led all the students think they'd all be making $200,000 per year. If that were true, $17,000 going to pay down loans every year wouldn't seem so bad. But when you're making $30,000 per year - or worse, when you're unemployed - $17,000 per year is a whole lot of cash. Maybe financial advisors should be required sit down with each and every incoming student and say "the lower end salary for someone graduating is $30,000 per year. Do you have sufficient other resources that you can afford to pay about half of that salary towards your loans?" If they answer is no, ask them to come back in a year when they've successfully passed the intervening time having spent not a penny over $13,000. If they've proven their mettle by succeeding at that challenge, welcome them to law school with open arms. If not, show them the door. But that's just my recommendation.
Perhaps what all newly-minted lawyers struggling to make loan payments will get out of this fiasco is a healthy dose of cynicism. Here's hoping they can impart their hard-learned lessons on the next generation.
[A blog post summarizing other responses to Segal's Times column is here.]