A Cup of Coffee: $3.05; Tuition: $33,400; Legal Education: Priceless
Note from the Editor: Recently, the Campbell Law Observer hosted a write-on competition to recruit new staff writers and editors. Each student was to discuss the value of a law degree. As we all know, the value, or perceived value, of a law degree has changed. Below, you will find the second article in this series.
In the summer of 2008, I was living the dream: basking in the glow of beautiful Myrtle Beach, living on a premier golf course and cleaning golf clubs for tips. Did I mention that the dream was a nightmare? As I often contemplated my aimless existence of laughing at bad jokes in hopes of earning an extra buck, my thoughts frequently reverted to my long-standing desire to attend law school.
One fortuitous day, as I was loading a gentleman’s golf clubs into the back of his brand-new BMW Series 7, I asked, “So what do you do?” He responded coldly, “I’m an attorney.”
Seeing my opening, I began to tell him about my interest in law school, and asked if he had any advice for me. For the first time, his eyes lit up as he eagerly advised, “Yeah… don’t do it!”
Sensing my disappointment, his friends tried to soften his crass answer by adding, “Yeah, well keep in mind that he says that from his mansion here in Myrtle Beach.”
Now it is almost four years later, I am in my second year of law school, and that man could not have been more wrong.
Current 3L, and soon to be Campbell alumnus, Justin Eldreth, recalls a similar experience, “Every attorney I spoke with about going to law school told me it was a bad idea . . . but if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
I’m sure this is a common experience for many of us. So what did these attorneys misunderstand or misperceive about our intentions? Evidently, they thought we were motivated to obtain a law degree for the lifestyle or income it could produce.
Admittedly, if that were the case, then this blunt advice was spot on. The fact is, based on current data, earning a law degree in today’s market is a risky venture to say the least. There is a surplus of articles and blogs encouraging aspiring young lawyers to re-think their investment in what one New York Times author has dubbed “a losing game.”
Indeed, these critics support their propositions with an abundance of relevant data. To spare you the monotony of sorting through a pile of statistics, allow me to summarize: the cost of a legal education continues to increase dramatically, while job availability and starting salaries steadily decline. An alarming number of students are graduating with a six-figure debt, only to discover that they will be working in a field that does not require a law degree.
So, the question remains: “Is law school ‘a losing game’”?
I think not.
First, law school is an investment in human capital – specifically, an investment in yourself. Like any other investment vehicle, the goal is to maximize your rate of return, and when you invest in yourself, you can directly influence what that rate will be.
Do you recall the familiar expression, “you only get out of something what you put into it”? That adage certainly applies to the pursuit of a legal education. With every event, challenge, or assignment comes the unique opportunity to not only better yourself, but also to increase the value of your investment in the process. This potential benefit is often over-looked; but once you recognize that you are in control of the return, it is a truly liberating experience, and suddenly, the monstrous debt seems much less intimidating.
Campbell SBA President-elect, Anna Brinkley, appeared keenly aware of this truth when she said, “I don’t think education is ever a bad investment, as long as you recognize who and what you are investing in.” She added that, “The investment in your human capital is all about attitude – a positive ‘can do’ spirit coupled with a solid education can propel you to success on both a professional and a personal level.” As law students, we have taken a not-so-small gamble on ourselves. We should ask ourselves, “to an outside investor, am I worth the risk? Am I working everyday to maximize the return on my legal education?” If not, we should be.
Whether you like it or not, you are a business. You have made a substantial monetary investment in yourself, and unlike Ford and AIG, the government has no plan to bail you out. The job market does not care about your debt – it is sink or swim and no one is throwing you a life preserver. The good news is that we are presently positioned to do something about our investment. Law school abounds with opportunities – opportunities to better yourself, or to phrase it differently, to maximize the return on you. All law degrees are not created equal, and what differentiates your degree from everyone else’s depends on what you put into it.
Second, I contend that the true value of a law degree lies behind the numbers; it is an intrinsic value, one that cannot be measured in dollar signs or market trends. Law schools are often chastised for failing to teach students practical skills that will make them immediately marketable upon graduation. These critics often fail to recognize that a legal career is a decathlon-like marathon, not a sprint.
Indeed, many of these quoted statistics are focused on short-term gain, rather than long-term value. Kevin Lee, a professor at Campbell Law, noted, “The kind of practical skills [these critics] advocate are the very skills that can now easily be outsourced… [however] critical analysis, problem-solving, and abstract-thinking are non-transferable.” He went on to state, “Our goal is to prepare you for a legal career . . . we would be doing you a great disservice if our only purpose was to commodify you.”
This stated objective, I believe, captures the essence of the true value of a legal education. To be sure, the costs of law school are great, but the intangibles – rationality, critical thinking, morality, discipline and other acquired skills – are valuable attributes. Campbell Law Adjunct-Professor J.D. Hensarling describes this distinction as, “It is a difference between process versus results. Some individuals believe the value of any particular activity is measured solely by the result it produces; whereas, for me, the true value of a legal education lies in the process.”
As I approach my final year of law school, I could not agree more. I have yet to learn what the final result will be, but the process has been priceless.
With great risk comes great reward, and every day of law school is brimming with risks laden with opportunities. It has truly changed the way I think; it has freed me from irrational fears and desires, and equipped me with the ability to reason on a level I never dreamed possible. Indeed, law school has done much more than simply prepare me for a legal career, it has taught me skills that pervade every aspect of my daily life, and for that, there is no price tag.