If a college graduate asked me whether to go to law school today, I'd say "yes." But, here's how to do it.
Do not apply to a school that is likely to admit you to fill the bottom of the class. You will pay full tuition to claim that spot. Instead, apply to law schools that will happily admit you to fill the top ten percent of their classes -- they will be one or two tiers lower than your stretch school. Look at the LSAT quartiles for each school for a hint at how you fit in each school's entering class profile. Disclose the admission package offered by the better school to the admissions office of the lower-tiered school. Use it to get the lower-tiered school to sweeten the scholarship offer they've made to you.
By the end of the recruiting season, if you are a skillful negotiator, you could get a 50-, 75-, or 100- percent ride at a good school. You will graduate with less debt and still find a decent job at graduation. Often private schools offering good scholarship packages can be price competitive with state schools.
I have three other pieces of advice. First, be cautious if any of the schools admitting you have not posted --as required by the ABA -- current data on scholarship retention rates. That school may be employing a bait-and-switch tactic. If so, you may get a great deal during your first year of law school, but then lose the scholarship and face paying the regular tuition rate for the remaining two years of your education. Or, you may need to transfer to a more affordable school.
Second, if the school does post its current scholarship retention rate, be cautious about going there if the rate falls below 50 percent.
Third, also be cautious if a school tells you it will give you a nice scholarship, but if you disclose it to any other school, you face the risk of losing the scholarship. Clearly, the school is hampering your ability to negotiate a better deal at another school. In the end, is this the kind of school you really want to attend?
Students graduating with $100,000, or more, of educational debt have bought the equivalent of their first house. The decision to attend law school involves many factors, as I have discussed in many recent postings on the economic value of a law degree. A student must ask: "What else would I do if I don't get and use a law degree in my career planning?"
Similarly, when I bought my first house, I asked: "Do I want to pay rent for the rest of my life? Do I want to live with the limits my landlord imposes in a lease? What are the benefits of owning my own home?"
When I bought my first house, I was in my mid-30s. I immediately painted the interior walls in bright colors of yellow, green, and coral. I got two dogs. I replaced the wood flooring. I had laundry facilities in the basement, a dedicated parking spot, a nice deck, a covered front porch with a porch swing, and a fenced yard. I quickly added a perennial garden and then dramatically landscaped the front yard. As a renter, I would not have had many of these features or freedoms. Without my law degree, I would not have had the income to live so independently.
When I sold my house -- even in the down market following the 9/11 attacks -- I made enough profit to live very comfortably for a year in a two bed-room condo during graduate school. Later, I put a $20,000 payment down on my second house in Grundy.
My second house -- also in the $100,000 range when I bought it -- has the same features my St. Louis house had. I can't imagine living without them in the same way I can't imagine my life without a law degree. In fact, I now have three dogs!
If I were making the decision to attend law school today, I suspect I would still find a way to do it. Then, I'd pay off the student loan just as quickly as I paid off my 15-year mortgages.
Nov. 27, 2013 Update: Last week-end I finished reading Brian Tanamaha's book called Failing Law Schools. He devotes several chapters to student loan debt. I strongly recommend that students considering law school read those chapters to appreciate the risks they assume by accumulating too much student debt.