How Much Debt Is Too Much Debt?

If you follow law twitter, you may have seen the recent news: Columbia recently became the first law school to pass the $110,000 mark for tuition and living expenses per year. That means that a student who does not get any financial aid could leave law school with almost $400,000 in loans (when you take into account interest accrued during law school). Most students won’t pay the sticker price, but even so this is a ridiculous amount of money, especially for students wanting to do public interest law. Unless your school has an excellent loan forgiveness program, you will be paying back your loans for a very long time. Or you will abandon your public interest dreams and become a corporate lawyer because you are forced to. These are not good outcomes.

That is not to say that public interest students should never take out loans. There are many circumstances in which it makes sense. But you should not take out loans until you calculate what your monthly payment will be, what loan repayment options you will have, and how much you are likely to earn. If the numbers don’t add up, you need another plan. That plan might be waiting another admission cycle and retaking the LSAT so that you can compete for merit scholarships, going to a lower-ranked school that offers you financial aid, or avoiding law school altogether. The time to consider these options is before you enroll, not when your first bill arrives six months after you graduate.

There needs to be a revolution in law school financing. The current system is broken. The average debt burden has doubled in the last 20 years and is still growing. It is unsustainable, particularly for public interest students who could never count on high salaries. Your job as a law school applicant is not to get crushed by the system. I think that being a public interest lawyer is one of the best jobs in the world, but no job is worth $400,000 in debt. If that’s your only option, you should think seriously about whether law school is right for you.

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