December 16, 2005

Challenging the Standard Law School Thinking

In the interests of taking a short break from Wills & Trusts (to which I will dutifully return for at least one more hour on this fine Friday evening), I present the following:

Before the beginning, I had silly dreams of going to a local private school whose fees were roughly twice of those of my public school. Since then, the gap between the two has narrowed sharply, but I still had a very nice realization in the shower the other day. (Yeah. That's right. The shower. What? I was trying to make a point...)

Private school did me a huge favor by rejecting me.

I'll be graduating at least $40,000 less in debt thanks to their good judgment. I know the standard law school rule is that you go to the best school that you get into. But, for any of you pre-law kids thinking about where to go, I'd like to offer an observation from where I'm sitting: for me, the standard logic doesn't work.

Let's assume I had been accepted to Private school, graduated, and passed the bar (large assumptions, but work with me here) instead of attending my school: I'd have the same letters after my name, I'd have received roughly the same quality of education (after 2.5 years at my institution and discussions with students at Private school, I sincerely believe this) I'd probably have more or less the same type of job lined up, and I'd probably have a different set of interesting friends in place of the great ones I've made. Assuming the alternative is that I do graduate from Public school and pass the bar (fingers crossed), the Private school alternative is a wash. A different path on the choose-your-own adventure with all sorts of unexpectables, no doubt, but the 10,000 foot view is roughly equivalent. The take home, for me, at least, is that it doesn't matter.

But wait. Had I gone to Private school, I'd be in at least $40,000 more debt. In exchange for that privilege, I'd have a fancier school name on my resume and I wouldn't have had to commute as far. But the people who would prefer to hire me, know me, or whatever, because of the fancy private school name -- I can live without 'em. So for me, personally, it comes down to the commute and the money. And in hindsight, I'm happy to trade the commute for the money, although in the moment, I probably would have gone with the herd.

So, after I had the shower realization (thanks for the rejection, guys!), I did some back of the envelope calculations. And when the numbers started to look ridiculous by estimation, I did the real math. Turns out, this year I saved $13,103 by attending public school over private school. In 1L and 2L, it was significantly more (I believe when I entered, it was a savings of over $20,000 a year).

To attend public school, I commute about 1.5 hours a day over what I'd have to commute to private school, had I been accepted. I spend a bit on gas, but I'd have to pay for an expensive parking pass at Private school. I'd guess that I have about a $5 a day extra outlay in terms of parking and gas over what I'd have to pay for Private school's gas and parking. Come the close of the year, I will have attended approximately 115 days of class and finals and weekend law school events. That's 177.5 hours of commuting and $575 worth of additional expenses. Which means I saved $12,528 by commuting, or about $70.58 an hour. (First year, with the lower tuition, it was probably well over $100/hr.)

Had I been accepted to both schools and elected to go to public school, the $70.58/hr of commuting that I saved would be easily the highest hourly compensation I have ever earned (with the exclusion of very short one-off projects). That alone would have made it a smart decision for me, had I had the option of making it.

More important for challenging the standard law school wisdom, however, is that $70.38/hr is a higher hourly rate than the highest compensation that a 1st year firm lawyer at one of the highest paying firms can expect to earn. If you assume a 40 hour week and no bonus, then even the 1st years at Skadden don't "earn" as much money per hour for their toils as the student who opts to earn/save a bit by commuting 1.5 hours a day to attend Public school over Private school.

With the 40-hour week, 50 weeks a year, and no bonus assumptions, the few theoretical law students who end up at Skadden are making less per hour ($70/hr, to be precise) than I am during my high-earning commute hours.

This model is probably conservative. In reality, I probably "earn" significantly more per hour for commuting than the average Skadden 1st year because a 40-hour week is unreasonably low, and it is unlikely that bonuses work out to anything more than $70/hr. Both of those realities would make the Skadden 1st year "earn" even less than me on my commute. Also, I commute with friends several trips a week, which is an enjoyable experience that has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships and, in general, has been one of the better aspects of my law school experience. I'm certain that the laughing conversations we have on the way to and from school are less demanding and more enjoyable than at least some of the hours as a 1st year at a firm.

In sum, I'm so thankful Private school rejected me. I'm better off. I'm happy to be where I am. I was also, in all likelihood, too foolish to see the reality through my pre law-school glasses. Had Private school accepted me, I probably would have gone. It's great when life is smarter than you are. Just great.

Okay. Back to Trusts. No, seriously. I swear.

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