Around this time, some law school applicants will joyfully announce that they received an acceptance offer from the school of their dreams. For various reasons, they believe they will be happy there. While I commend these people for getting accepted, if they are not careful, their dream school may end up being a trap school.
A trap school is a school that attracts students due to it having some kind of name recognition but the students face a substantial risk of graduating with massive debt and without a high-paying job. It was coined 10 years ago by Professor Paul Campos in his now-defunct blog.
Trap schools tend to have high tuition and fees. And only a fraction of the graduating class can obtain the careers that can ensure their student loans will not be lifelong financial shackles. This makes attending these school a gamble to some extent.
In addition, the typical trap school tends to have at least one of the following characteristics:
- It is a reputable law school in a state where the student does not plan to live or practice after graduation.
- It is a public law school in a state where the student pays nonresident tuition.
- It is in a high cost of living metropolitan area.
- It is associated with a reputable university.
- It is a school whose alumni tend to be on television a lot.
Based on the above, many solid law schools could be trap schools.
It is worth noting that a law school can be a trap school for one student but not another depending on their expectations. For example, a school can be a trap school for the student who wants a highly competitive position at a major law firm after graduation. But not for the student who plans to work in the public sector or a local nonprofit and plans to enroll in the PSLF program for his student loans.
Fortunately, a lot of things have happened since the dark years of 2008-2012 that may make many law schools less of a trap today. Thanks to the ABA Section of Legal Education’s mandatory Standard 509 Disclosure reports, students have access to more detailed information about post-graduate employment. Some law schools have closed, which has reduced the number of graduates entering the market. And the job market has improved (for now) and starting salaries have increased.
But even in a good economy, there will be a certain number of smart, hard-working graduates who will either be unemployed or will have to take a job that will not pay enough to make ends meet. Which means they lost the trap school gamble and they could be a financial hole for a very long time. And who knows what the job market will be three years from now.
The way to avoid a trap school or at least minimize the trap effect is the same advice I always give when choosing a law school in general. Assume you will graduate during an economic malaise. Negotiate down tuition and be frugal with living expenses. Or go to a cheaper school. Or simply don’t go to law school at all.
The pivotal question here is what the student should do if their first choice law school could be a trap school. Should they pay more to attend a school they really want to go to? Or should they go to a less desirable one just because it is cheaper? Of course, that depends on a variety of factors that the student should consider. Law school can be a stressful three years so you may as well be where you will be happy. But if the price difference is substantial, then it will be a difficult choice.
I can understand the joy and pride that a person feels if they have the opportunity to attend the school of their dreams. It’s likely that they will be happier and perform better in classes. But depending on their career goals, the school of their dreams could be a trap school, and there is a chance they might not get the job they were hoping for. That can put them in a financially nightmarish position for many years.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.
Leave a Reply