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Law School Debt and the American Dream


I’m currently about 14k in the hole with student loans, which isn’t too bad, as far as such things go. It sucks to have to drop $200 every month, but I’m pretty sure there are about a billion people in China who don’t really give a crap, if you feel me. It’s like a really small albatross lightly gripping my neck.

If you go to law school, and you don’t get some financial aid, you can reasonably expect to graduate with about ten times that debt. It’s a scary thought, mildly assuaged by the idea that you’ll have access to a higher-salaried job market then the rest of us plebes. But still, I understand that it’s a little scary.

In that vein, Above the Law has a post today about an unhappy law grad who spoke to President Obama at a town hall meeting yesterday. Paraphrasing the conversation:

Law Grad: I can’t pay off my debt, I don’t have a job, and I don’t have prospects. Is the American Dream still alive for people like me?

Obama: I’m running for president again in 2012.

As Elie Mystal says in the post, Obama’s actual answer wasn’t exactly “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” on the scale of inspiring presidential oratory. He could have said any number of things about education being a huge priority for our nation, student debt reaching exorbitant heights, the economy…really, he could have said anything besides, “There is not a country in the world that would want to change places with us. We are still the country that billions of people in the world look to and aspire to.” Not exactly taking a hard look there.

The big question is: how big a problem is student debt? Is it something, like the law grad implies, that is killing the American dream?

I lean toward “no” because law school is such a specialized form of education, and no one should really feel entitled to something so specialized. The American dream is a promise of general success and prosperity (which was never true, but we’ll roll with it), not a promise of a legal career and a six figure salary. If you’ve graduated from law school with a mountain of debt and no job prospects (which is actually still wildly hard to do) then you’ve dug a hole for yourself, and I sympathize. But it’s probably because you went to a lower tier law school and didn’t excel.

Stay realistic about your prospects, and put in the work before applying to law school so you can actually have a shot at the good schools/financial aid. Control your own destiny. It’s a great way (the only way) to avoid the pitfalls of student debt so you don’t end up asking the president why your life sucks in a town hall meeting.