This is the question asked by the WSJ Law Blog. The post links to a paper titled Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, by psychology professor Kennon Sheldon and law professor Lawrence Krieger.
I found the paper itself to be a bit abstract, meaning it’s not the kind of thing I want to read on a Sunday afternoon. The comment thread following the WSJ Law Blog post is, to me, more concrete and more interesting.
Many of the commentators on the WSJ thread seem to regret their decisions to go to law school. Speaking for myself, I did not find my third-tier law school depressing or demoralizing. Overall, law school was interesting, though at times a bit of a grind. It was hard work, but I must say it paid off in improving my income and my lifestyle. Overall, I’m better off today than I would have been had I not gone to law school. Maybe I was lucky.
While I won’t presume to offer anyone advice, I would like to share one bit of my own experience, for what it’s worth. One thing many of the WSJ commentators find demoralizing is the crushing debt they leave law school with: generally around $150,000. In contrast, my total student-loan debt on leaving law school was, as I recall, somewhere around $9,700. This was partly due to good fortune — financial assistance that paid a good chunk of my tuition. But part of it was my own doing. I chose Loyola’s four-year night program over Tulane’s three-year day program because of dollars and cents. Loyola’s tuition was lower, and by going to school at night, I could keep my day job, which paid my living expenses.
There was a trade-off in this. Night school is certainly the hard way to do law school: work an eight-hour day, then grab dinner at a fast-food restaurant before three hours of classroom time, and spend the entire weekend doing a week’s worth of preparation for next week’s classes. Multiply that by four years instead of the usual three, because when all your classroom time has to be scheduled between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., law school takes four years. And a less expensive school generally means a less prestigious school, which may mean fewer job interviews. Still, I managed to get a good-enough job with good-enough money, and with relatively little debt, I left law school with no money worries.
Some people advise prospective law students to try to get into the highest-ranked, most-prestigious law school they can. I have a different suggestion: consider the cost. The less debt you have at graduation, the more of your starting salary you’ll get to keep.