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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Law degree proves costly bargain

It’s been six years since Andrew Rockafellow earned a law degree from Cooley Law School in Lansing. He’ll be lucky to earn $20,000 this year, with no health-care benefits.

For those doing the math, Rockafellow’s $100,000 law degree is the equivalent of five years' pay. By comparison, those graduating with a one-year Cisco certification at Lansing Community College can earn more than $75,000 a year on an approximately $10,000 investment – the equivalent of seven weeks' pay.

“In retrospect, I should have done a physician’s assistant class, instead,” Rockafellow said.

A Bridge Magazine analysis of job projections through 2018 suggests that not all education has the same return on investment. The state produces more teachers than it needs, as well as too many communications majors. But the biggest mismatch is in the legal profession. State universities produce more than double the number of lawyers each year to fill the expected openings.

Some students come to Michigan’s schools to obtain law degrees and never intend to look for work here. But the 38-year-old’s experience indicates that there are more lawyers than lawsuits to keep them busy.

Rockafellow left a comfortable job with the state making $60,000 a year to pursue a law career. He hasn’t started paying back the $100,000 in student loans he took out to go to law school, and he owes another $20,000 for his bachelor’s degree.  Next February, Rockafellow must start making payments on his student loans. The payments: $850 a month – about half of his total earnings.

Without health-care coverage through his work as an attorney, Rockafellow must buy insurance on the private market. “I spend more on health insurance per month than my mortgage,” he said.

Not everyone who gets a law degree plans to work as an attorney, said Ann Vrooman, director of research and development for the State Bar of Michigan. Some work in government, academia or for nonprofits. Still, Vrooman said the Bar’s own surveys show an increase in unemployed lawyers, more casualties of the state’s lackluster economy.

Rockafellow is sticking with law for now, believing that hard work for little money today will pay off in the end.

“My return on investment is not what I expected when I left law school,” said Rockafellow. “I graduated with honors and I couldn’t buy an interview in the state. The legal field is so saturated.”

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