You cannot serve both God and mammon. – Mt. 6:24
It seems that most law students these days should love God immensely. Today, law students are piling up incredible amounts of debt and with fewer job prospects on the horizon, we may see in the near future a generation of post-J.D.s who cannot pay back their loans.
When I first started law school two and a half years ago, it seemed like a very wise investment. A number of schools threw money my way to attend, and jobs seemed plentiful. Now, the situation has changed quite a bit. Although I didn’t pay a lot to my school to attend law school, I do need to feed, clothe, and shelter my family. Those expenses, even on a very tight budget, add up to what some would call (myself included) an astronomical figure. And, since I am starting off my legal career clerking for a federal judge, there is no huge salary off the bat to counteract the debt load.
Some people today are questioning the value of a law degree compared to the opportunity cost of working. Others think that there are too many schools, too many spots, and not enough jobs to sustain the whole law school enterprise. And even for students who try to cut costs as much as possible, the debt just piles up.
Now that the economy has tanked, the problem of law school debt is exacerbated. Students have the same amount of debt with fewer job prospects out there. And for those jobs that are available, they are paying less than before. The lower salary figures are nothing to sneeze at. They are far more than I’ve ever made and far more than I will make as a clerk. But, when the debt toll is so high, even the lowering of a very high salary takes at least an emotional toll on you. The dream, for me, is not to go buy the BMW and the big house, but to pay off debt as fast as possible. Before law school, my wife and I went through the Financial Peace University offered by Dave Ramsey. We knew we would be taking on debt, but wanted to have tools ready to use after I graduated and got a job. Before law school, our only debt was the car payment (the car will be paid off this week). Now, we have more debt than I predicted, almost double the debt I predicted. I did not think I’d take out what amounts to a mortgage for school.
For those contemplating law school, I would caution them just as many deans have cautioned incoming students. Law school is not a place to wait out a bad economy. It is, rather, a place to get a credential that you need in order to do a job you could probably do with some basic training and apprenticeship. But, the system is set up how it is, and I do not see it changing any time soon. So, in that system, you can rack up debt quickly just trying to live, and you need to take a good look at whether you are able to take on that debt and pay it off quickly after graduation. Consider what the best options really are for the goals you have for your career. For us, it was better to go to a state school near the market I want to work in, close to family, etc.
Ours was a good investment, I think, and once we pay off the debt, we will be significantly better off financially than if I had kept teaching. But, there is certainly some anxiety going through the process and there will be more as we pay off the loans and as I look for a job after my clerkship. Never forget, the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7). Debt can weigh you down, but there is light at the end if you persevere and put in the work to get financially free.
UPDATE: Here is an interesting graph depicting the law school debt load many people take on.