The High Cost Of Legal Education Saved Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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I no longer believe there are people who don’t know what she looks like. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Themyscira) is receiving a lot of well-deserved praise from the legal community for her instructive examination of Michael Cohen during his appearance at the House Oversight Committee. AOC credits her staff. I have an additional theory for why she, and the other freshman Congresswomen, were so focused at the hearings.
In response to some of the plaudits, Ocasio-Cortez revealed this nugget about her origin story:

Time for some context. Ocasio-Cortez graduated from Boston University with a degree in international relations and economics in 2011. You might remember 2011 as the year the impact of the recession had fully hit Biglaw. Jobs were scarce in 2011, and the press (ahem) was making a big deal about how the price of law school was outstripping the demand for high-end legal services. Ocasio-Cortez must have been aware of all that when she was entertaining law school.
Had she gone, let’s say right after college, and debt-financed her education as so many of us do, she would have graduated in 2014 when the legal economy was well on its path to recovery. Let’s assume she could have gotten a job, a good one. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume AOC could have gotten pretty much any legal job she wanted. Now, AOC certainly seems like the person who might have eschewed Biglaw for more… socially relevant work. But are we sure? Graduating with $150,000, or more, in debt can do a lot to change a person’s perspective on work. Ocasio-Cortez as talked about how a long probate battle after her father passed away made her aware of how courts and bureaucracies impact struggling families. Maybe she does good work for legal aid, or maybe she thinks she can moonlight as a trusts and estates lawyer for “just a few years” until she pays off her loans? There are a lot of law students struggling with that same decision right now, and we know most of them will wind up taking the money.
And we haven’t even talked about the time-cost of law school. Whenever I talk to prospective law students, I always try to remind them that law school doesn’t just cost money, it takes three years of your life. In the three years she would have been in law school, AOC famously worked as a bartender, waitress, and drove a school bus. These positions are not as glamorous as spending three years in a law library, but it certainly keeps you grounded in how “regular people” are living their lives. How many law students are there in part because they felt like their other alternative was just “waiting tables” or something else unbecoming of their intellect and drive?
For AOC at least, it kind of worked out. Unshackled by debt, unbounded by a partnership track, and still living in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez was able to volunteer on Bernie Sanders’s campaign. And one might imagine from there she gained the confidence and the contacts to run for Congress and take on a well-established incumbent Democrat.
Don’t get me wrong, if instead of going to law school, I had tried to do what AOC ended up doing, I’d probably be living under a bridge by now.
But what I take from her story is something that I’ve been saying for 10 years on this website: Don’t go to law school, unless you really want to be a lawyer. Don’t got to law school because you’re kinda interested in law stuff. Don’t go because you can’t think of anything better to do. Don’t go because “lawyer” sounds like “a real job” while “community organizer” sounds like something you made up to piss off Republicans.
Instead of thinking about all the things you can do with a law degree, spend some time thinking about all the things you can do with three years of your life after which you won’t owe anybody six figures of debt.

Elie Mystal is the Executive Editor of Above the Law and the Legal Editor for More Perfect. He can be reached @ElieNYC on Twitter, or at [email protected] He will resist.

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