Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Law School Bound?: New Policy on Letters of Reccomendation

Over the last couple of years, I have become a great skeptic of law school as an appropriate post-college choice for most students.  (I am not alone, of course. See here and here, for example.)  Law school is, typically, very expensive both in terms of the nominal cost of tuition, books, fees, etc., but also in terms of the opportunity cost of lost wages and spending three prime years of young adulthood in yet another structured educational environment.  Given these the tremendous investment up front, it is likely to take most students a very long time to amortize the startup costs of a legal career and earn any sort of reasonable net return on that investment both in terms of compensation and in terms of professional happiness and overall quality of life.  This is especially true for students who are unable to earn places in nationally prominent law schools from which major national and regional law firms draw their new associates. 

A third of new law school graduates in 2009 accepted positions paying $65,000 or less.  That works out to take home pay of about $4,500 a month after federal taxes---though not counting state taxes, health insurance, retirement, or other payroll deductions.  Payments on $50,000 of student loans would be about $400 a month (for a 20 year note at 6.8%), and double that on $100k of student debt (which is not unusual if a student has borrowed money for college and law school).  Asking someone to pay between 10% and 20% of their real income to service student loan debt is an enormous burden and perhaps a crippling one.

Even though I have made a habit of counseling students to be very careful in their choice to attend law school, most students who see me about letters of recommendation eventually ask me to write on their behalf.  Generally, I comply with students' requests, writing letters that convey my evaluation of each student for better or for worse.  I am not playing along any more.  I will no longer write letters of recommendation for students applying to law school who are unlikely to  be competitive for admission to programs that offer a reasonable chance for employment remunerative and engaging enough to justify its cost.

From now on, I will not write on behalf of a student unless he or she has:

1. earned a cumulative GPA of at least 3.5.
2. taken an LSAT exam and earned a score of at least 160.
3. completed some sort of internship, career shadow, or other professional or educational experience that might have reasonably shown them the kind of work that lawyers do day-to-day.
4. researched the cost of law school and made a plan for paying for it.

I realize this policy will exclude a lot of very good students and lead to some awkward conversations.  Still, I can't, in good conscience, support educational choices that I don't support, no matter how much I may like a given student. 

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