Yale Law School Profs Advocate Paying Students Back For Poorly Paying Careers Post-Graduation

Two Yale Law School professors are championing a controversial deal they want offered to law students nationwide: If a law student realizes the opportunity for a successful legal career is doubtful while enrolled, the law school should offer to reimburse the student part of the first-years’ loans. However, choosing to attend law school is not akin to playing a round of golf. There should be no mulligans if one isn’t par for the course.

Akhil Amar and Ian Ayres, the professors proposing the aforementioned deal want Yale to be the first law school to adopt such a policy and for other schools to follow its lead in providing more forthcoming statistics regarding students’ post-graduation employment prospects.

After all, the legal market has not escaped the national trend and has suffered bleak employment prospects the past few years. Last week, Yale Law School didn’t go so far as to instate professors Amar and Ayres’ proposal, but did scale back its loan forgiveness plan, “which partially subsidizes tuition loan payments for graduates who enter relatively low-salary careers.”

The threshold under the old plan was $60,000, meaning that any of Yale Law’s alumni earning less than the baseline could have his or her loans fully subsidized by contributions from alumni earning more than the threshold. The new plan calls for a $50,000 baseline thanks to conservative budgeting as a response to the recession.

But if law students were granted this amnesty provision, what’s to say that they deserve this opt-out deal more so than medical or other graduate students? Or why not even undergraduates?

Upsetting as it may be that some law students are not rewarded with the financial flexibility they so desired at the beginning of their legal educations, those who decided to attend law school took a calculated risk in pursuing their juris doctor. If the students didn’t perform to a high level, or if they wanted to pursue generally less lucrative legal careers, such as public service, (Yale graduates’ median public service starting salary was $58,645; compare to $160,000 for median private sector starting salary), the student has simply failed to make a return on investment.

All higher education will generally cost a fair amount of money and, even for those students who avoid indebtedness, a great deal of time. The law student is willing to invest copious amounts of time and money in exchange for a promise that they will be able to comfortably sustain themselves later, notes Jim Chen, Dean of the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law.

In reality, choosing to attend law school seems analogous to investing in the stock market: There is the promise of a great return on your investment, but there is also the possibility of financially crippling results.

It’s hard to justify why law students should be reimbursed for a law school career that didn’t pan out as planned when the average person is not entitled to the money lost trading stocks after this person discovered he or she was not adept at navigating the market.

Yes, more law schools need to follow Yale’s lead in releasing detailed employment statistics of its graduates so the prospective law student has more information to best assess the positive and negative factors before taking the plunge into law school. However, critics of Amar and Ayres’ proposal counter that these comprehensive statistics, including how a student’s grade-point average and LSAT numbers correlated with post-graduation salaries, are still somewhat misleading because academic performance is not necessarily indicative of professional success.

Ultimately, the law school can only provide so much information, but the responsibility should remain with the law student to realistically assess their chances of post-graduation employment or to accept they succumbed to the hazards associated with a legal education.

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