Law in Contemporary Society
Law students and lawyers are risk averse people and so no one should be too surprised by the approach taken by most law students towards their debt. Having incurred an enormous amount of debt, students look to the employers who will promise the most amount of money to pay off loans as quickly as possible.

Is it enormous? The average US mortgage in 2012 is roughly $235k.

This was certainly my frame of mind when I decided to attend law school by borrowing tens of thousands of dollars. Having not relied on student loans as an undergraduate student, the idea of taking on such a substantial financial burden was understandably worrying. But like many of my peers, I was comforted by the fact that few other schools can offer better opportunities in the legal market, and if I did reasonably well, I would be able to get a job and pay off my loans.

Having finished my first year of law school, the same facts that gave me comfort as an admitted student are exactly what trouble me now. While at first I viewed the exorbitant salaries paid by law firms as an opportunity to quickly escape the ball and chain of student loans, I now realize that debt is the bargaining chip that firms use to exert control over their young associates. Law firms are well aware of the cloud of debt hanging over their incoming associates and by offering high salaries, they essentially coerce students into applying and keep associates from leaving. Thus, year after year, incoming law students agree to the racket: borrow thousands of dollars in order to get a job in order to pay of the debt of thousands of dollars.

Maybe this is true, but probably not. The number of people who would like those jobs at $160k/yr was far larger at all times than the number of such jobs available, and more so now. Why should people who have jobs available at those wages need to coerce anybody?

The absurdity of the whole situation began to strike me when I began to view my student loans more like the mortgages held by most homeowners. Eben reminded us that people don't make decisions about their jobs or, for that matter, their lives because of the mortgage that they are obligated to pay down every month. Yet law students everywhere seem to explain their career choices at least partially by their debt. As I mentioned above, this is a predictable reaction for risk averse individuals. But what if the risk of student loans is not the greatest risk we face? Rather, what if the risk of leading an unfulfilling, miserable life in a white collar sweatshop is the real risk we should be avoiding, rather than the risk of not being able to pay hefty monthly payments? Yet, most law students fear their debt far more than they fear the consequences of working somewhere where student loans are the least of the worker ants' worries.

Given this point of view, how should a law student appropriately approach their debt? First, students should work to understand the true complexity of their debt and the options that will face them once the repayment period begins. Working at a law firm is likely the fastest method of paying off debt and hence it appeals to so many students. I argue that if more students had the knowledge that they have a multiplicity of options to pay off their debt, then these students would feel less pressured by their debt and better able to make the career choices that will affect the rest of their lives. Part of the reason that I chose to write about this subject is that I have become more aware about my lack of knowledge regarding what my options will be and I want to be able to make a choice about my career that does not depend on the amount of money I have borrowed in student loans. Being educated about student loans is the most important factor in being able to make a free choice to pursue the type of career that will truly make one happy.

I think one helpful approach to debt from the perspective of a current law student is to imagine the worst-case scenario. Much of the fear that drives young lawyers to work at places simply for the salary offered stems from a common nightmare about being saddled with a financial burden too heavy to bear. Many people are haunted by the thought of not getting a job or being able to pay off student loans. Yet confronting this issue sooner rather than later will enable us to make better decisions that are not based on fear but on knowledge of the variety of options we face. To this point, taking steps like finding a financial advisor that I trust and researching how others have successfully dealt with their student loans have helped me to feel more confident about not walking the oft treaded and gilded path to a law firm.

I have made the decision to stop being afraid of my debt. It is time to stop using my student loans as justifications for career choices. Working at a place that compensates handsomely but is totally unsatisfactory as a career is not a solution to student loans. Though I held this idea firmly in my head at the beginning of the year, and clung to this hope as the semester wore on, it's clearer than ever to me now that there will be no simple solutions to paying down my debt. Facing this reality is powerful because I feel free to choose, and that is no small thing.

I would like to continue to edit my paper through the summer

I'm happy for you to continue revising this essay, but I don't know how to advise you on it. If it is a record of your thinking, a stream of consciousness about the debt and its meaning, I can't do much more than stand aside. If its conclusion as it stands is correct, and you should be thinking about something other than the debt, then it would seem necessary to recompose rather than rewrite: the next draft should be about something else.

-- NithinKumar - 20 June 2012


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r5 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:07 - IanSullivan
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