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How much debt will people now applying to law school incur from attending the schools they’re considering? Law school debt is a function of the relationship between, on the one hand, tuition and cost of living, and on the other, socioeconomic status, grants and scholarships, and money earned over the course of the student’s legal credentialing.

Let’s start with a simple rule of thumb: the average debt incurred by graduates who incur law school debt — currently about 90% of all graduates nationally — is about three times the tuition the schools they attended nominally charged when those graduates were 1Ls (This ratio will naturally be somewhat higher at the rapidly shrinking cohort of state law schools that charge residents significantly less than private law school tuition). For example, Cornell 2010 grads with law school debt averaged $126K in such debt, while their 1L tuition times three was $131K. Texas grads had $78K in debt while their 1L tuition times three was $75K (this latter figure adjusts for the one third of UT law students who pay out of state tuition). Boston University grads had $103K in debt while their 1L tuition times three was $110K. The comparable figures for USC were $118K and $128K. And so forth. (This ratio gets worse at private third and fourth tier schools. For instance at Thomas Jefferson students have $137K in debt while their 1L tuition times three was $95K).

But this rule of thumb needs to be subject to several caveats. First, keep in mind that law schools have in recent years started offering bigger and bigger discounts to many students in regard to their advertised tuition figures. The actual tuition paid by students at these schools is probably no more than 80% of the list price tuition. In other words, the debt figures above represent the average debt incurred by people who are paying, on average, significantly less than MSRP. If you’re offered little or nothing in the way of a grant off list price (or if you’re offered a scholarship that could easily disappear after your first year — this is especially a problem at lower-ranked schools), you should expect to incur quite a bit more debt than the figure you will obtain by multiplying your prospective 1L tuition by three.

Second, at elite schools, the SES of the student body ensures that many students are coming from rich families who are helping the students pay for law school. This can be seen by the fact that 19% of Stanford graduates, 23% of Columbia grads, and 27% of Yale grads have no law school debt whatsoever. This in turn means that another portion of the class will have relatively modest debt, because while their families aren’t paying for the entire cost of law school, they are “helping out” in ways that, if you don’t come from a rich family, aren’t relevant to your situation. Now it’s true some portion of this effect is due to need-based scholarships, which, unlike almost anywhere else in the law school world, actually do exist at the most elite schools, but if you don’t have such a scholarship and come from a middle class family — note that at an Ivy League school “middle class” means a family with an annual income in the low six figures — expect to owe a lot more than your 1L tuition times three.

Third, before you do anything rash, do yourself a favor and calculate how quickly a debt load featuring 7% to 8% interest accumulates when you’re not making payments on it. Here’s an actual example from the Class of 2011. “Richard Roe” graduated in May from a law school in the 92nd percentile of the rankings. He received a discount of more than one third off the list price of his school’s tuition in all three years of his attendance. He finished in about the 65th percentile of the class in terms of grades, served on a journal, did a bunch of other extra-curricular stuff, “networked” left and right (he is as personable as he is energetic) and basically, as the phrase has it, did everything right. He incurred $145K in loans over the course of law school, which, because the interest on the loans accumulates, has grown to a principal balance of $165K seven months after his graduation from this excellent school. He currently has no employment of any kind other than a school-funded “fellowship” that pays him $15 an hour to do 30 hours of work a week for a non-profit.

There is, it should be unnecessary to add (but it very much remains necessary), nothing at all unusual about either his background story or his current situation.

Fourth, keep in mind that law school debt figures are only for law school debt. Average undergraduate debt at graduation in the United States is currently around $25K, and climbing quickly. The current class of 1Ls who have just finished their first year exams will probably graduate with, on average, around $150K of total educational debt. This debt is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, which means you can’t get rid of it, short of moving to parts of the world you really don’t want to live in. So, as they say in first year Contracts, caveat emptor.

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