Following on from what I wrote a couple of days ago (the piece about measuring the financial value of the JD, and why it should be valued in such blunt terms), I wanted to take a look at the other side of the equation: opportunity costs. We all know what these are; the cost of not taking an alternative (or giving up what you currently have). For example, an opportunity cost of attending law school is the loss of whatever earnings you may have made in your second choice of career, including the three years of additional earning you missed out on because you attended law schools.
But this isn’t about economics. It’s about how these opportunity costs figure into the decision to attend law school. And rather than approach opportunity costs as an afterthought in the analysis, I’m going to suggest that they take center stage.
This is probably best explained by example. Take me, for instance. When I approached my decision to attend law school many years ago, I was all about the analysis. I looked at facts, figures (sadly, most of which were provided by the law schools directly or indirectly, and which contained flaws and outright lies that were hidden from me, but that’s another story), I made spreadsheets, I calculated costs, benefits, likely chances of success, and I went to town. And opportunity costs were in that analysis too.
But I still made a bad decision, and not only because law schools were feeding me horsemeat when I thought I was eating beef. What I failed to do was place appropriate focus on my analysis. In my analysis, law school was the option that was being evaluated. It was all about law school. Do I go or not? It is worth it or not? Will I enjoy it or not? But it was all about law school – the JD was the star of the show.
In reality, my analysis should have been flipped on its head. It should have been a decision about why I should reject the path that featured as the lowly “opportunity cost” in my analysis, rather than a decision about law school with opportunity costs as a small part of that whole. Why should I turn my back on what I already have?
In other words, my analysis should have approached the decision not from a standpoint of “why should I attend law school?”, and not even from a standpoint of “why should I not attend law school?”, but instead from a standpoint of “why should I stop doing what I’m doing now, and what I’ve always thought I would be doing?”
To put this into context a little more, here’s what hurts about my decision to attend law school. Sure, the student debt and the lies and the fraud and the general scam that is the legal profession and the legal education system, that all stings. But that’s a skin-deep sting. That stuff stings when I look at my bank account, when I look at my student loan bills each month, when I realize how much financial devastation that decision caused and will continue to cause. The thought that there are admissions staff and wealthy professors still sitting in comfy little offices at my law school, peddling their lies, their defective product, their overpriced trash. The thought that I spent years working as a lawyer and hating every single minute of it, that stings too, but again, only skin-deep. All that wasted time and money. It’s there every morning when I wake up, I feel it throughout the day, and it’ll be there when I go to sleep at night. For the past decade, and for the next. Then when the financial hardships and memory of law school are a distant past, that skin-deep stinging will fade.
But what really hurts, what really will last forever, is the ache deep in my bones, far away from the direct effects of law school. Forget the financial stinging, the wasted years, forget all of that. It’s nothing compared to this crushing ache. And this ache is caused not by money or lawyers or professors, not by regrets over time wasted in law school classrooms and late nights spent with client files. The ache, the sickening, excruciating, but quiet ache underneath all of it, is caused by the realization that I gave up something I loved doing for law school. I gave up a regular job in a field that had interested me since I was a child, nothing that would make me rich, but something that I was interested in, something that was moderately stable, just a regular, little old job; the kind of job that if you had asked me at age 10, 15, and even 20, I would have said would suit me just fine. Then law school came along, with its lies and “you can do better than that, you can be more than just that, you can be a better one of those with a JD”.
That’s what aches. The fact that I gave up so quickly on something that I enjoyed, something that I was suited for, something that would have been just fine. Not the fact that my first choice (JD) has caused a decade of depression, stress and financial ruin, but the fact that the thing I relegated to merely an “opportunity cost” is what I should have been doing with my life. It’s an ache that I gave up what I had worked towards for the large part of my life until my last couple of years of college, until I started curiously clicking on law school websites and falling into the trap.
It’s the ache that is caused not by doing something wrong and screwing up, but by hurting someone who trusted you in the process. The mistake can be fixed. The betrayal can't.
The loss of the opportunity is what I will always regret, not the failure of the decision to attend law school. Nothing will ever replace that. I don’t regret setting foot in law school as much as regret handing in my two weeks’ notice to my boss before going to law school. I regret giving up what I had more than I regret the utter waste of time and money that law school and a legal career has been. What's worse is that I would have regretted turning my back on this even if I was currently a successful lawyer.
Could I go back to it? Meh, too old, too in debt, not the person I used to be. That door is closed. Could I do other things? Sure, and I’m working on that, but none will replace that bygone betrayal.
Don’t overlook what you’re treating as a mere opportunity cost. Chances are, that’s the real opportunity.