For these lawyers, when they hear about students who have taken out $200,000 in loans, they sometimes shake their heads and ask "why didn't they just work more hours during law school?" or something along the lines of "I guess if they didn't want to work during law school, then they are going to have to pay for it now."
This is a massive disconnect and it serves to illustrate the vast differences in the experiences of these older lawyers in going to law school and being a young lawyer as opposed to those who are going to law school today.
Below, we try to get a vision of what going to law school looked like financially in the 1950s and how it compares to the experience of today. This should be useful to give law students and young lawyers insight into the preconceived notions that senior partners have about law school - and to serve as a resource that young lawyers can send to senior counsel who are not comprehending the difference - or refuse to relinquish their assumption that the accumulation of loans is somehow a sign of laziness or lack of drive.
To help us get a better handle on costs and how they have changed over the years, we will use a specific example. In a previous article we discussed the cost of attending the University of Pennsylvania Law school. We found that for the 2009 school year, tuition and fees were $46,514 and books and room and board were $19,096. UPenn Law is a fine law school and other schools charge about the same - we are just using UPenn as an example.
Now let's take a look at the numbers for UPenn Law in 1950 -
First, we find that tuition to attend law school in 1950 was $600/year and books, room and board (BRB) were $740/year.
Thus, even before we dig any further, we note a curious aspect - namely, that in 1950 the cost for BRB is actually 23% HIGHER than tuition. Conversely, in 2009, tuition has become much, much more expensive than BRB - in fact, tuition is now 244% of the cost for BRB.
Already we can see a very significant difference in the cost structure between 1950 and 2009. In fact, using the relative increase in the cost of BRB from 1950 to 2009 as a metric to predict how much tuition should be, we find that the predicted tuition is $14,704 - which is about $42,000 less than the actual tuition. To put it another way, the actual 2009 tuition of $46,514 is about 320% GREATER the predicted tuition.
These comparisons alone are very telling, however, let's get an even more visceral understanding by taking a look at the number of hours of work that these costs represent at the respective minimum wages of 1950 and 2009.
According to the Department of Labor, the minimum wage in 1950 was $0.75/hour while the minimum wage in 2009 is $7.25/hour.
Now, (ignoring the impact of taxes, which would be minimal) we find that the 1950 tuition of $600/year took 800 hours to earn at the 1950 minimum wage of $0.75/hour. The full cost of attendance of $1340 took 1787 hours at minimum wage. That's a lot of hours, but it is doable with working part time during the school year and full time over the summer (maybe with a little overtime or a wage that was slightly greater than minimum wage.)
However, taking a look at the 2009 tuition of $46,514 as compared to the minimum wage of $7.25/hour, we find that it would take 6,416 HOURS of work to earn enough to pay for law school tuition. Further, the full cost of attendance of $65,610 requires about 9050 hours of work.
In this regard, I note that a 365-day year only includes 8760 hours. Consequently, I feel confident in stating that no one working at minimum wage could hope to pay for their law school today. Also, comparing the required hours of 1787 in 1950 to the required hours of 9050 in 2009, I note that:
- Three times 1787 is only 5361, while three times 9050 is 27,150. Consequently, today's law student has to work about 5 times as many hours as a 1950s law student to pay for law school.
- Conversely, if the law student of today worked just as hard as the law student did in 1950 (1787 hours), there would still be a deficit of 9050-1787= 7263 hours. At the 2009 minimum wage, this deficit represents $52,657/year.
For those who are considering going to law school today, take heed of the numbers above and realize the different finanical impacts of the two scenarios. New lawyers in 1950 typically did not graduate with any debt at all. They could literally "afford" to try out different practice areas and find a practice that suited them and they enjoyed. They were not forced to take a high-paying job due to the pressure of making massive loan payments. Similarly, they had much greater freedom to choose a "lifestyle" firm that was less demanding (and less paying) because they did not have to make the huge monthly nut. Consequently, when older attorneys talk about having the freedom to discover themselves and the flexibility to work less and find the "work/life balance," recognize that they had opportunities that you will never be able to have. Also, when they talk about how satisfying they have found their career, recognize that the level of satisfaction they express is the level of satisfaction without having to pay back $175,000 in loans - your level of satisfaction is likely to be lower.