Is the Cost of Law School Too High for Women?

By Tara Jacobi  

Fifteen years ago, I graduated from law school in New York, with your typical law school educational debt.  My first job out of school, I earned what seemed like a decent salary, but facing educational debts, as well, made it challenging if not impossible to live on my own in New York City.  I found solace in speaking with other young attorneys like myself about how to survive.  After just one year of living on my own, I moved in with my then boyfriend, now husband.  I felt as if I did not have much choice.  I wanted my independence - ironically that is why I went to law school, but financially I could not afford it. 

Several years into practicing, I found my dream job, working for a non-profit, representing women who are survivors of domestic violence.  However, I quickly learned I could not survive on a non-profit salary without going into more debt.  I was helping women who were financially challenged, out of abusive situations, to try and gain independence, when it dawned on me how I myself was far from financially independent.  I also gathered the factual data first hand as to the steep cost of raising a family.  I thought to myself at that time, I simply could not afford it.  With education debt, some might say I was worse off financially then most of my clients.

I eventually took a position with the state government setting policy for states enforcing child support, but put off having a family.  After medical school and residency, my husband’s salary took a significant increase.  While he paid our cost of living, I threw my entire salary for three and a half years at my educational debts.  Slowly with his help, family inheritance, and after ten years out, I paid back my law school debt.

At thirty-seven, I felt although I didn’t have any savings, just not being in debt was a significant accomplishment, which allowed me to believe maybe now I could afford a family.  By this time, after working for two state governments enforcing child support, on both the east and west side of the country, I was well aware of the cost of rearing children. Yet, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that it might simply be too late.  After being married ten years, we tried to conceive but were told we only had a two percent chance of success unless we opted for medical intervention.  Like so many other couples today, we went through in-vitro fertilization.  Several tries later, with several thousand dollars invested, at age thirty-nine, I had our son.

Looking back now, I realize I almost missed the opportunity to be a mother. I spent my thirties paying for the education I received in my twenties. I was limited in my job choices and financial independence was a pipe dream.  I did not want to be the woman who married because this would give her a step up in financial or social status, or the woman whose life was her work, limited in choices, without any admiration for what she did day in and day out, married to her job.  I did not envision making poor choices that lead me within the boundaries of these distinct situations, which I thought were long gone for women of my generation.  I became an attorney so that I didn’t have to marry to have a better life, so that I would have a variety of choices in the type of work I could do that would allow me to make a living supporting myself, to inspire other women to do the same, and to be a bread winner.  The profession should afford women all that and more.  We should demand from it nothing less.

How we got here requires asking questions that many of our institutions may not want us to ask.  They didn’t teach us much in law school about economics but I am sure most have pondered what the reasonable value of a law school education really is.  How is it that law schools can charge so much?  How does the government play a role?

Is the cost too high for women or men who may also have a priority to have a family?  Will the next generation of attorneys do better than us or are they worse off?  Are women lawyers paying too high a price to have it all?  There are no easy answers, so I won’t attempt to supply one.  For myself, I still find myself asking questions and wondering.  



This post is poignant and on point.  As a current government employee in my early 30s with mounds of debt still, I totally identify with this post.  I think the key question you ask is one you bring up later- how can law schools continue to charge so much in a faltering economy with low salaries?  In my opinion, no one with any power can really push back on this.  Graduates are stuck with their debt- they have no leverage over the school anymore.  The employers don’t particularly care how much debt, and there’s a glutton of grads so they don’t have to pay more.  The federal government continues to loan plenty of money to students to pay for the exorbitant costs.  The only people who have the ability to push back are prospective students- and there are still more of them than spots in classes.  Law schools themselves have zero incentive to cut costs- it hurts them in the rankings which hurts their reputation and students’ limited employment prospects anyway.   Plus, who voluntarily gives up money that they know they can charge?
As to whether the cost is too great, I suppose that’s an individual choice.  Despite being in my 30s, having a mound of educational debt, and making about the same I did before law school, it’s still totally worth it to me.  I LOVE my job.  This is what I have always dreamed of doing.  I get up in the morning excited to go to work.  My clients are fantastic.  My co-workers are fantastic.  The fact that I get paid to do this still amazes me, and it makes living on a serious budget more tolerable.  But I’m lucky.  And I know that. 
Thanks for your post, story, and thoughtful insight.  I’m glad things worked out and you were able to have the family you wanted.  I hope you still think your law school education was worth it!


So many students go into this profession without the knowledge that the median income is around $50K.  Sounds like enough, but it isn’t when you have law school debt, start thinking about retirement, having a house, etc.  I remember turning 30, walking into my apartment with my 2 roommates and my 10 year old car with no options on my USDOJ income thinking, “I don’t even have a dog!”  Twenty years later, my husband and I are still paying off debt and we are fiscally responsible. 
That said, I think a law degree does offer a lot of flexibility and skills to women to find different paths.  But it takes creativity, resilience, and and an ability to weather some risks.  The idea that you can go to any law school, get any grades, then find a secure job that offers independence is not practical.  On the other hand, how does our profession stack up to others?  I don’t know.  Even doctors are having issues these days.

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