Borrowing significant sums of money to attend law school is now a way of life. The Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions at the University of Virginia School of Law recently urged undergraduate students to “maintain good credit so that they will not encounter problems obtaining student loans.” In other words, remain credit worthy because your attendance in law school will require you to take on some serious financial obligations.
Since 2000, student loan indebtedness has skyrocketed more than 400%. In 2013, Time magazine reported that the average debt load for law school graduates was over $100,000. The publication found that at some law schools, the average debt actually exceeded $150,000. The “CNN-Money” website cited to a study by the New American Foundation that revealed that in 2012, more than half of all law school grads carried in excess of $141,000 in student debt. A monthly student loan payment can sometimes exceed the amount of a monthly mortgage payment. Even President Barack Obama recently admitted that he and his wife had been “strapped” with law school debt and only ten years ago paid off their law school loans.
The Decision to attend a Private Law School
The cost of tuition and fees to attend Stetson University School of Law in Gulfport, Florida is currently $40,256.00. The school’s website provides an estimate of additional necessary expenses such as books, supplies, rent (at a double occupancy rate,) food, transportation and some personal expenses. When you total these costs, the decision to attend this private university amounts to a $57,037.00 per academic year. Keep in mind that law school is a three year course of study. Likewise, these expenses are limited to only the nine month period of the academic calendar. It is also noteworthy that the price of tuition at any law school is not locked in for your three year term. To the contrary, educational institutions typically warn that “tuition and fees are subject to change.” I think we all know how to interpret that caveat.
In their 2016 ranking of law schools, U.S. News and World Report revealed that 83% of Stetson Law students graduate with student loan debt. More insightful was their findings that out of the 183 law schools in the United States they studied, Stetson Law School graduates were in the top 8% of students nationwide graduating with the highest debt levels.
Attending a Florida Public University System Law School
Attending law school at the University of Florida or Florida State University can represent a significant savings to Florida residents. Both of these public universities reported in 2014 that the total cost of attendance, including all accompanying expenses was $38,593.00 per year. It is no wonder that the FSU Law School website provides an online “Law School Cost Comparison Calculator.” The Calculator takes into account tuition and all other expenses associated with attendance at each law school. Click a button and it produces a handy MS Excel spreadsheet enabling a quick cost comparison of up to five different law schools of your choice. If you do the math, a Florida resident attending a state school, as opposed to Stetson, will save more than $50,000.00 over the course of the three year period. That savings rises to almost $90,000.00 for those considering attendance at the University of Miami.
Borrowing More Money... Means Paying More Interest
Federal Direct student loans for post graduate students generally carry an interest rate of approximate 1.5% higher than those loans for undergraduate students. In addition, law students pay a loan origination fee that is 3% higher than loans associated with undergraduate barrowing.
Current interest rates for Federal Direct post graduate student loans run between 6.21% and 7.21%. Other sources of unsecured loans typically carry a higher rate. Interest on the loans immediately begins to accrue on your first day of law school, even though your first payment obligation is delayed for a sixth month period after graduation.
Having to borrow more money to attend a private school naturally translates into having to pay more interest. For example, if you borrowed an extra $50,000 to attend Stetson and you paid off your law school student loan in the minimal ten year period, the extra debt will have caused you to incur an additional interest expense of approximately $20,000.00. On the other hand, if you borrowed an extra $90,000 to attend the University of Miami, you will have incurred an approximate $34,500 additional interest expense. As a result, the true difference in attendance at a private school versus a public school must take into account not only the increased cost of tuition, but also the additional long term debt service incurred on the higher amount of money being barrowed. It is noteworthy to point out that federal law only allows you to deduct student loan interest on your Federal Income Tax Return if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $75,000 in a given year. Even if you meet this qualification, the Internal Revenue Service limits the amount of interest you can deduct to a miniscule $2,500.00. This would likely translate to a $625.00 annual tax savings at best.
The cost of education has become so expensive that the national student loan default rate currently exceeds the national credit card delinquency rate. Nevertheless, federal law prohibits student loan debt from being discharged in a bankruptcy proceeding. Under some limited circumstances you can temporarily defer your payment obligation, but interest will continue to accrue during the deferred period of time. But “skipping out on the debt” is just not going to happen. For example, earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office reported at a Senate Committee hearing that last year 155,000 people had their Social Security checks garnished for delinquent student loans.
Foregoing Employment to Study Law
Keep in mind, that attending law school requires foregoing three years of income, or at a minimum, greatly reducing your earnings. Thus, becoming a law student means giving up a college graduate's salary, sustaining a lower standard of living and encumbering one's self with enormous debt. In fact, until last month, the American Bar Association had a long standing policy that prohibited law students from outside employment in excess of 20 hours per week. The repeal of ABA standard 304(f) came as a response to the urging of the ABA Law Student Division Assembly who argued in part that:
- Beginning in the 1980's law school tuition consistently rose in excess of two times the rate of inflation;
- Since 2002, law school tuition has increased between five and fifteen percent per year; and
- Law students are facing an "unprecedented financial strain."
Selecting the Right Law School
The focus of this article is purely from a financial perspective. Attending any law school is an expensive endeavor and represents a serious commitment. However, after the decision to attend law school has been reached, choosing a law school that best fits your needs is a highly personal matter. For example:
- Stetson enjoys a national reputation for both its Trial Advocacy and Legal Writing programs;
- University of Miami Law offers an impressive number of clinical opportunities in a wide range of practice areas. The school is known for its International Law Program and its highly successful International Moot Court team
- Florida State has a “top 20” ranked Environmental Law Program. It is also considered to have the most hard working and admired faculty law professors in the state;
- The University of Florida has a renowned tax law program and has produced an enviable list of notable law school alumni. This includes members of Congress, U.S. Ambassadors and Florida Supreme Court Justices.
An argument can be made that a prospective student’s focus should not be directed merely at front end costs, but also at long term career objectives. The “right fit” could ultimately lead to an employment opportunity in an area of the law for which the student has a genuine passion. This in turn, can result in a high level of job satisfaction and employment compensation that could greatly overshadow the premium paid in tuition and living expenses. Thus, the process of choosing a law school is a more complex equation than simply selecting a school that ranks the highest or one that costs the least.
Given the dismal employment opportunities for new lawyers and the cost of a legal education, arguments abound over “whether law school is currently worth the money.” See New York Times: Debating, Yet Again, the Worth of Law School. Is there a mismatch when you consider the cost of law school and the value of a law degree? That is apparently the conclusion many college graduates are reaching. This is evident in the greatly reduced number of people sitting for the (LSAT) “Law School Admissions Test” and the overall drop in the number of law school applicants. The American Bar Association says that the number of applications to law school in 2014 was down 37% since 2010. In fact, the 2014 first-year class was said to be the smallest in the past forty years.
Compare Four Popular Florida Law Schools
You make the Call!
University of Florida School of Law
2016 Law School Ranking: #47
Total cost of education: $115,652.70
Full Time Student Body: 944
Median LSAT Score: 162
Median GPA: 3.64
July 2011 Bar Passage Rate: 89.1%
February 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 68.2%
July 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 91.2%
February 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 72.7%
July 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 88.2%
February 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 64.7%
July 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 90.6%
February 2015 Bar Passage Rate: 82.4%
Florida State University School of Law
Law School Ranking: #50
Total cost of education: $115,779.00
Full Time Student Body: 655 Students
Median LSAT Score: 162
Median GPA: 3.47
July 2011 Bar Passage Rate: 88.3%
February 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 78.3%
July 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 89.2%
February 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 96%
July 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 86.7%
February 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 82.8%
July 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 81.8%
February 2015 Bar Passage Rate: 72.7%
Stetson University School of Law
2016 Law School Ranking: #105
Total cost of Education: $168,720.00
Full Time Student Body: 701 Students
Median LSAT Score: 155
Median GPA: 3.34
July 2011 Bar Passage Rate: 87.7%
February 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 87.7%
July 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 88.9%
February 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 93.9%
July 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 89.3%
February 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 85%
July 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 78.2%
February 2015 Bar Passage Rate: 71.0%
University of Miami School of Law
2016 Law School Ranking: #63
Total cost of Education: $206,193.00
Full Time Student Body: 1,142 Students
Median LSAT Score: 158
Median GPA: 3.38
July 2011 Bar Passage Rate: 82%
February 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 78%
July 2012 Bar Passage Rate: 81.6%
February 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 86.4%
July 2013 Bar Passage Rate: 79.3%
February 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 80.7%
July 2014 Bar Passage Rate: 81.2%
February 2015 Bar Passage Rate: 64.4%
Note: The 2016 Law School Rankings were secured from US News & World Report. The “Total cost of Education” was acquired on 9/19/14 from the website of each respective law school. This figure includes three years tuition, fees, books and supplies. It also includes an estimate made by each law school of the cost of off campus rent, food and transportation. For ease of calculation this figure assumes no increase in tuition over and above the first year tuition rate. Nor, does it contemplate any inflationary increases in cost of living expenses. Click Here for the latest Florida Bar results
The Bottom Line
The National Jurist published an article entitled “Best Value Law Schools” in which they ranked the “Top 20 Law Schools” in the country in terms of “bang for the buck.” Florida State University was ranked #10 and the University of Florida was ranked #13. Student-loan debtors generally fare better in states that offer a combination of stronger economies, higher incomes and lower education related debt. Unfortunately, a recent study found Florida greatly lacking in the first two qualifying factors. The study ranked Florida 40th in the country when determining the best place for young people to reside when burdened with student debt.
When you consider both findings, you are left with only one conclusion. Those who borrow their way through a private Florida law school education with the intention to ultimately practice law in the Sunshine State will face strong head winds. On August 15, 2015 The Tama Bay Times published an article entitled “Little Cheer for Students Burdened With Debt.” Commenting on the study, the newspaper reasoned: “Florida falls into the lowest ranks because its residents with student loans tend to have higher levels of such debt and higher default rates. They also face a job market in Florida with below-average wages in a state that is an increasingly expensive place to live. Burdened over time, debt-laden residents are forced to hold off on larger purchases, such as homes, and appear to marry and start families later – effectively delaying their contributions to growing the economy.”
What is the Best Kept Secret?
The author of this article believes Florida International University College of Law in Miami is perhaps the best kept secret. It is one of the “new kids on the block,” having only received ABA accreditation in 2004. Yet in that short time, it has secured first place in Florida Bar passage rates on four separate occasions. Over the past eight Florida Bar Examinations, the school achieved an average passage rate of 82%. Between 2009 and 2016, FIU Law vaulted 49 spots up the US News Law School Rankings, surpassing Stetson University. The school is clearly making a name for itself. Florida International has the smallest number of law students and the smallest student to faculty ratio. Best yet, Florida residents enjoy in-state tuition.
10/15/16 Update: Florida International University College of Law came out on top again in the July 2016 Florida Bar Exam results. FIU beat out every other law school with 87.5% of their graduates passing the exam. Florida State saw 78.8% of its students pass and the University of Florida tallied 78.6%.
About The Author
Attorney Frank Russo secured his Bachelor’s Degree from the College of Business at the University of South Florida. Thereafter, he attended Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, California. The law school was founded in 1911 and has developed a reputation for graduating law students who are entrepreneurial and prepared for practice. The school’s progressive approach toward education offered Frank the the opportunity to acquire significant practical experience outside of the classroom. While attending Southwestern he served clinical internships at the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of California. The law school was recently selected “fourth” among the most impressive law school buildings in the world. When Frank Russo was a law student at Southwestern Law School, the annual cost of tuition was less than $5,000.00. The current 2015 annual cost of tuition at Southwestern is $48,080.00. Additional annual expenses to live off campus in this Southern California locale are now estimated by the school to be $36,000.00. The total cost today to secure a JD degree from Frank’s alma matter currently exceeds : $252,240.00.
After graduation from law school, Frank returned to the Tampa Bay area. He has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1985 and served as a State Prosecutor for the Sixth Judicial Circuit at the Clearwater Justice Center. He established his own St. Petersburg criminal defense law firm over twenty-five years ago - eventually partnering with his wife Colleen. Colleen is a Personal Injury attorney and also represents individuals who have been denied Social Security Disability benefits. Frank’s practice of law continues to be limited to the representation of persons charged with criminal offenses in Pinellas County. He is joined by attorneys Marc Pelletier and Timothy Sullivan. Both of these lawyers also served as former State Prosecutors. The law firm of Russo & Russo, P.A. is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell.
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