Guest Post from Matt Leichter, Law School Tuition Bubble

February 10, 2011 at 12:28 am ($, Choosing a law school)

A week ago, Matt was kind enough to comment on my post Ever-Increasing Law School Tuition, which prompted me to checkout his blog, Law School Tuition Bubble. I was extremely impressed and enlisted his help in deciding which law school option I should take.  In case you’ve been hiding under a rock the last several weeks, here’s my dilemma in a nutshell:  Behind Door #1 I have a full-tuition scholarship to my Tier 2 state school in a city I would love to practice-in. Door #2 provides a 50% scholarship to a prestigious top-25 private law school. However, even with the 50% scholarship, I would be required to take out approximately $65,000 in loans over 3 years. Matt’s advice brought clarity to my decision-making and I know his insight will be extremely useful to those journeying down the law school path.  Here is what Matt had to say:

Greetings readers, I am Matt “LSTB” Leichter, head of the think tank of one, the Law School Tuition Bubble, which is dedicated to analyzing and chronicling the tuition bubble in legal education. Law School Dreamer graciously offered me the opportunity to write a guest post on her blog regarding her law school choice.

First, some housekeeping. When people tell me they want to go to law school, my default response is, “Don’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGo.” Not because law school is miserable or unfun (I didn’t hate it), but because the return on investment (ROI) has cratered for a variety of reasons mainly having to do with the economy and an oversupply of attorneys. Unlike most prospective law students (0Ls), I feel Law School Dreamer’s circumstances overcome the presumption that it’s a bad move for two reasons:

(1)   She has experience in the legal field, and

(2)   She won’t pay sticker price for her law degree.

Why is prior experience important? So many reasons! One great criticism of 0Ls through new attorneys is that they “Didn’t do their homework,” when it came to why they wanted to become lawyers. This criticism responds to post-graduate disillusionment towards law practice. Law School Dreamer knows the legal profession and wants in anyway. If anything, more people should follow her path, and I believe prior experience should be a prerequisite for law school admission.

As to cost? Well, I semi-seriously jest that I’m the national expert on law school tuition, but to prove my cred, I’ve gathered the last seven years of law school tuition data and posted them on the Internet; inside there’s even a link to tuition projections for private law schools in five and ten years from now. I’ll continuously update these data. In short, due to multiple factors (lax and antiquated accreditation requirements, unlimited federal lending, non-dischargeability of student debt, lack of gainful employment for young Americans, cultural over-hyping of the legal profession, a U.S. News rankings arms race, and juked graduate employment stats) tuition is skyrocketing out of reality. While income-based repayment (IBR) is now an option for law students who cleave to the federal loan system, essentially, law students won’t have to pay for an education they can’t afford, dumping the costs of a poor legal market on taxpayers. I emphatically do not recommend people go to law school thinking IBR will save them! Some legislators have grumbled about doing away with the program even though it’s only a couple years old.

So, to Law School Dreamer’s situation: She’s choosing between two law schools located in the same state that she already lives and works in, and I add that compared to others her state has an unusually low ratio of attorneys per capita (something else I’ve calculated that 0Ls should look into). One is a U.S. News Tier I private law school offering a 50% scholarship provided she merely maintain good standing. The other is a Tier II public law school offering a full tuition scholarship requiring her to maintain a fairly good GPA. She is interested in government work.

My thoughts? Go with the Tier II public school.


(1)   U.S. News ranks law schools along a unitary national standard, which naturally (but reasonably) prejudices towards older law schools. Both of the schools in question were founded in the 19th century, so neither is a fly-by-night operation brand new law school. Law School Dreamer is making a local decision, so the real question is to compare the two law schools in her state. How does one do this? The quick ‘n’ dirty intra-state law school ranking system is to go to the state’s highest court’s website and see where its judges received their law degrees. Doing this for Ms. Dreamer, I found that more than one justice went to the Tier II school, and oddly, none went to the Tier I private school. She’s in good hands. (Amusingly, someone from a local Tier III-IV private law school sits on the court as well. Ha!)

(2)   Public law school tuition is increasing more rapidly than private law school tuition with the benefits of residency diminishing. For instance, University of Virginia and University of Michigan are pretty much private schools and cost as much. Every three years or so, public law school students get savaged with very high tuition increases (like 25%). The beauty of the full tuition scholarship the Tier II school offers is that the sunk costs are far cheaper than those of the Tier I school, where she’s guaranteed to pay, like, $25,000. This gives her a year to try things out and reassess if she loses the scholarship. Even if she sticks to it, she’ll probably still pay less than the total of the Tier I school: $50,000 vs. $65,000 by my estimate.

(3)   Importantly, law schools are cunning institutions, and maintaining a certain grade point is harder than one might think. For example, a few years ago, St. John’s University in Queens, NY, was called out for placing all its scholarship students in the same class sections, forcing them to compete with one another. Law schools grade on a curve, so St. John’s system ensured that many students lost their scholarships after their first year. This is something for Ms. Dreamer to be aware of, but again, she gets a free year that allows her to stall for time. Lest readers take me the wrong way, I’m not assuming she’ll lose the scholarship, just hedging for it. Law School Dreamer has a good chance of doing well and getting a free legal education, which would be pretty awesome.

(4)   As for the Tier I school’s prestige? Because the market is so awful for graduates, the on-campus interviewing opportunities simply aren’t worth as much as the U.S. News ranking would suggest.

There are perils to be aware of in the future.

(1)   Everyone is happy ROI has entered the legal education lexicon. Ms. Dreamer’s “I” is (a) living expenses and (b) opportunity cost from not working at her old position (unless she can stay part time or something).  It’s as low as the “I” can get without a stipend. The “R” though…the “R” though. The legal sector is not growing. It won’t start growing any time soon. The government sector will only be hiring if the state’s budget is secure, and after an $8 trillion housing bubble burst, states are seeing shortfalls in expected property tax revenues and lost income and sales tax. Government lawyers are not immune (except high court judges and attorneys general).

(2)   To expand on the previous section, much of the “R” requires a successful 1L year. In a crunched legal market, employers get to decide who they’ll hire and they prefer what I call “Top5%MootCourtLawReviewRequired.” They don’t like students in the bottom 85% of their classes. Anyone who does not perform well in their first semester (i.e. 3.0 or less) should consider walking away from the whole endeavor because it’s hard to prove to employers that you’ve made a comeback. Moreover, even stellar students or those from stellar law schools (e.g. First Tier Toilet !) are having difficulty securing employment. Law School Dreamer’s prior legal experience makes her look a lot better to employers than her classmates, which would complicate her post 1L decision to continue if she loses her scholarship.

(3)   Plenty of people find that they could get work more easily before they received their juris doctors and that the degree reduced their options in the market. Also, as Nando of the filthily genius scamblog, Third Tier Reality, says, “DO NOT ATTEND UNLESS:…YOU ARE FULLY AWARE BEFOREHAND THAT YOUR HUGE INVESTMENT IN TIME, ENERGY, AND MONEY DOES NOT, IN ANY WAY, GUARANTEE A JOB AS AN ATTORNEY OR IN THE LEGAL INDUSTRY.” Likewise for Law School Dreamer if she has to leave her current position there is no guarantee that she can get it back if she can’t beat the market.

(4)   The legal education system is on the verge of a crisis. LSAT takers are dropping, and I believe applications will drop as well. Tuition can’t increase forever when there are few law jobs for graduates. To quote law professor Maimon Schwartzschild “Rising costs may at some point provoke resistance, if not rebellion, among law students, their families, and the public.” Those who read my blog know that I advocate student resistance to tuition increases, and while being a part of such a movement is exciting for students, it’s NOT a reason to go to law school (unless you’re some kind of crazed revolutionary, which would be pretty awesome).

In all, Law School Dreamer is ahead of the curve, but she only gets one free year for certain and deserves a better market than the one she’d graduate into. However, given that: (a) her investment reasonably low, (b) don’t get me wrong, she’s just as likely to keep the scholarship as not and if she does she wins, (c) she has prior experience in the legal field (something employers love and something that makes networking or opening her own practice (if necessary) easier), and (d) she’s fully aware of the risks, the worst case scenario is that she has to reassess after one year.



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