Afghanistan War- the 20 years- what were we doing there all these years?

You can refer to the first part of this two part series Afghanistan War, the background. We humans have short attention spans and they are growing shorter with time- thanks to the myriad number of distractions we have today. Afghanistan is already at the backburner of media’s attention since there is more relevant and recent news to cover.

However, I had decided to write an unbiased fact based report on the war in September and hence delivering on that commitment to myself. I have plethora of things to do but making the time to do this before the issue of Afghanistan completely vanishes from our memories.

I ended the first post on why America had attacked Afghanistan in 2001 (at that time, most of the region was governed by Taliban). This part will focus on what we were doing in those 20 years we were there.

A quick lesson on US military before we proceed further. US military has six branches (the sixth “Space Force” was added recently)- Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and the Space Force. All the branches other than the Coast Guard fall under Department of Defense (DOD). Coast Guard falls under Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Donald Rumsfeld in 2001, then Secretary of Defense (also called SecDef- the highest executive of the Department of Defense) had the strategy of killing the bad guys and leaving thereafter. His thought process was that if it is required to come back to kill more bad guys 10 years later, he will come back again. He was not interested in “nation building” or establishing a fully functioning democracy in Afghanistan. He probably knew intuitively that “killing the bad guys” is the strength of US Military. Most of the bad guys had been killed or had fled Afghanistan for greener pastures in their safe havens in Pakistan. Then, what were we doing there in 2002 and beyond?

Photo credit: US Marine Corps. By Sgt. Samuel Ruiz

It seems that there were a couple of reasons we stayed back in Afghanistan. The first reason was the lesson from the Soviet War (I also talk about the history in Afghanistan War, the background.). After the Soviet War had ended, Afghanistan had fallen into a disarray and Taliban had eventually taken over the country. The US and its allies feared that if they left, there will be a Taliban comeback and the country will fall again into their hands. The second reason was “what does the country in the hands of Taliban mean for the United States and its allies”. The argument went like this- when the Taliban was in charge, they harbored Al-Qaeda (an international terrorist organization), which lead to September 11 attacks. If the US left Afghanistan in December of 2001 and the Taliban made a comeback, it would be fatal to US homeland security. Hence we stayed there, trying to ensure that the Taliban did not make a comeback.

But Taliban did make a comeback eventually and why did that happen? You can find the answers to those questions in various sources. I read the book called “The Afghanistan Papers” by Craig Whitlock. You can also find the answers in President Obama’s book “A Promised Land”. In addition to these sources, you can watch a bunch of documentaries and war movies. I am citing the sources so that it is clear that I am not inventing any facts here. I think the latest documentary on Netflix- “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror” is highly recommended. If you like movies more than documentaries, I recommend “The Outpost” as a great watch. “The Outpost” is about the outpost in Kamdesh I talk about in my previous post Afghanistan War, the background.“12 Strong” is also a good one but is not as well made as “The Outpost” and appears to be more Hollywoody than it needs to be. This one shows the sequence of events in October of 2003 when a group of 12 US soldiers was sent to Afghanistan to work with the “Northern Alliance” to fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Also, there is a docuseries on Netflix called “The Medal of Honor”, episodes 2 and 8 of which are connected to the events in “The Outpost”.

Now that I have provided a lot of the sources, you can dig most of the details yourself. I will provide more of a summary below as to what happened in the 20 years. The United States and it allies were constantly fighting insurgents. The term “insurgents” refers to “the bad guys” coming back into the fighting ring. These bad guys were always growing in numbers instead of decreasing, despite a lot of them being killed. Here I refer to another movie called “War Machine”. “War Machine” is an interesting (for the lack of a better word) take on the Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, who had to hand in his resignation to President Obama after an article about him and his team appeared in “The Rolling Stones” magazine. This happened when he was in charge (on ground) of the The War in Afghanistan. There is a scene in the movie where “Brad Pitt” who plays the character of the general says this- “Let’s say you have ten insurgents. Huh? Now, let’s say you kill two of ’em. Now, how many insurgents do you have left? Hmm? Hmm? Well, you’d say eight, of course. Eight. Right? Right? Wrong! In this scenario, ten minus two equals 20. Let’s say the two insurgents you just killed, uh… each had six friends or brothers or some such, who are hovering on the brink of… of joining the insurgency. They’re thinking about this insurgency thing. “Looks interesting. But, you know, for one reason or other, not for me.” But… So, then you go and kill their friend. Now you’ve just made up their minds for ’em. Those hovering friends are now full, paid-up members of the enemy. Yeah. And so, in the math of counterinsurgency, ten minus two… equals 20.” I think this is a great example of why counterinsurgency is so hard to win.

Let’s take a minute to explain what counterinsurgency (CI) is, as opposed to counter terrorism (CT). Counterinsurgency is working with the community so that the circumstances in the community change to such a degree that new bad guys don’t appear and the old bad guys are either killed or they change into a new good way of life. Counter terrorism, on the other hand, is mainly thwarting the plans of terrorists (bad guys) by either taking them down using force or by intelligence and preventing bad things from happening. Counter terrorism has a smaller footprint while counterinsurgency requires a big commitment to nation and community building, in addition to fighting with the enemies. President Obama in his book talks about the fierce debate that happened on the topic of additional troop deployment. Biden (then Vice President) was insistent on the CT strategy with a troop deployment of 20,000. The military, on the other hand wanted 40,000 troops because according to their analysis, CI was the only way to win the war. President Obama was in the middle, even though he always appreciated the then Vice President Biden’s sole voice of dissent. President Obama did hit a compromise and sent 30,000 troops eventually.

Here is another reason why it was very difficult to win this war- Pakistan. Pakistan is a sovereign country so the United States and its allies cannot wage a war there. However, the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan are porous and all the militants have to do if they want to, is to wait out in Pakistan while the troops returned back to their home countries.

And then the waste of money and corruption. The book “The Afghanistan Papers” dives into great details on the wastage of resources and money in the war and how all that money in the war corrupted the Afghan Government (not to say they wouldn’t have been corrupt in the absence of this money). There is another movie called “War Dogs”, which though focuses on a couple of Americans trying to make money from the war, did a good job of showing how money flowed in the Afghanistan War.

Then there were other reasons which prevented a successful “nation building” from happening (including creation of a strong Afghan Armed forces- army and police)- deep differences in culture (western allies versus local Afghans), low literacy rates, mistrust, consumption of opium amongst local men and legacy of a decentralized governance or no governance (people in rural areas could not understand why the President sitting in Kabul had any say in their lives, given they had lived for generations without any central Government support).

Did any good come out of this war? This is a more subjective question than an objective one. People have different opinions on this, especially for its effect on Afghanistan. Here is what I will say- this war seemed to be an unwinnable one to begin with. So, in that context, it was a waste of human lives and resources to a great extent. However, there is a silver lining (albeit at a great cost). There are several metrics which had improved in these 20 years (according to research by the Brookings Institute). Some of these metrics will automatically deteriorate during this new Talibani regime. However, some portion of the Afghan population (mostly urban/ semi-urban) has tasted a better way of life and would like to get back to it. They might be able to organize from within and govern themselves hopefully in a better way than they governed themselves in the 90s. The job of governing a country should always be in the hands of people who live there and not in the hands of outside forces to begin with. I hope that an internal revolution would lead to better governance in Afghanistan at some point in future.

The harder question to answer is if any good came out of it for the United States and its allies, at the expense of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent. This cannot be answered right away. We will find out in the coming years if the United States is safer from external terrorist threats than it was in the last twenty years. And someone will have to quantify the quality of life of the family members of the dead veterans and the mental and physical health of the surviving ones. And we cannot forget the opportunity cost, what would have happened if we had used these trillions of dollars elsewhere and none of the citizens were killed, injured or traumatized by the war. I will let the experts weigh in on that.

Thanks for reading!

Afghanistan War, the background.

A small outpost of US Army in Afghanistan, surrounded by mountains on 3 sides is attacked by 350 Taliban insurgents (we will cover the terms insurgents and counterinsurgency later in another post). Americans’ “mortar pit” had been neutralized by the insurgents (mortar pit is a defense structure capable of bombarding enemies from a long distance by firing different kinds of mortar shells, according to the situation). None of the Afghan soldiers who were in the coalition with the US Army were able to hold their grounds and they fled. The coalition also had a few Latvian soldiers helping the US Army. The American and Latvian defenders were compressed to a tight internal perimeter. And one of your brothers (an endearing term for the other soldiers in your platoon) is KIA (“Killed in Action“) and the other is WIA (“Wounded in Action”). You can see your wounded friend on the ground, injured and needing immediate medical attention to survive. You are in a broken down HMMWV (pronounced as Humvee), protected, but out of artillery. Will you risk your life to help your injured brother? Such are the decisions to be made in a battle, which is one of many in such a long war. In this particular instance, Ty Carter (then a Specialist) got out of the “Humvee” , crossed 30 meters of open space to provide life extending first aid to the injured soldier, exposed to enemy fire. He carried the injured soldier back to the Humvee and eventually to an aid station 100 meters away, again via open space. He did many such wonders on that fateful day and was awarded Medal of Honor by President Obama four years later.

The US Outpost Keating in this story. This is where the Battle of Kamdesh was fought. Picture courtesy: US Army.

The reason I tell this story is for you to recognize how hard wars are on human beings. Every individual life lost in most, if not all cases, leaves behind some grieving family and friends. And the trauma endured by the ones who participated in the war but survived is another epidemic to reckon with. It does take a lot of courage to put your life on the line, which is hard to fully comprehend for civilian folks like us. I am not a naive civilian who doesn’t understand the enormity of these undertakings and hence what I offer below is responsible writing. I am not in the business of selling papers so I don’t need to sell “outrage” , which is the common way of discourse in present times. People express outrage because that’s what sells and because that’s easy to do. If you are looking for an outrage, please look elsewhere. If you are looking for a reasonable overview of the background of The Afghanistan War, please continue reading further.

The United States pulled out all of its troops from Afghanistan by end of August 2021. There was an outcry in international media and the pundits from all across the world weighed in. However, very few fully understand the history of this war and what were Americans doing in Afghanistan in the first place. This write-up is to answer some of those questions. I am not a war expert in any way. However, I spent a lot of my after work hours and weekends researching this topic and this is the fruit of that labor.

Photograph Credit: Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty images

The History

To understand the 20 year war in Afghanistan (September 2001- August 2021), we need to go back in history to understand the background in Afghanistan. Since we cannot get into too many details in one post, it will be a very high level overview.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan (December 1979- February 1989).

Keeping minute details out, the Soviets went to war in Afghanistan to keep a communist leader in power. PDPA (a communist leaning party) had taken over Afghanistan, via a coup because they felt that that previous President Daoud (the 1st President since the collapse of monarchy, who himself had acquired power via a coup) was out there to terminate them. PDPA established Amin as the new leader and they started making the country secular and communist with Soviet help. They received a lot of backlash from the traditional Afghan people for whom Islam was very important. PDPA has been accused of imprisoning, torturing and murdering the traditional elites, which further increased the public resentment. Religion is one of the major things which aligns the disparate, ethnically different Afghan tribes, who did not agree with the new Leninist policies and its alignment with Soviet Union. There were mutinies in the Afghan army and Amir asked for Soviet help. The Islamic forces resisting Amin and PDPA are called Mujahideens. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, to quell the insurrection. The United States, via its CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, started arming these Mujahideens, to fight against the Soviets. The international pressure and great number of casualties lead to withdrawal of Soviet Union in 1989. Once the Soviet Union got out, the United States was no longer interested in pursuing any agenda in Afghanistan (the reason they had participated in the first place was to keep Soviet less influential in central Asia, which is close to oil rich Persian Gulf).

The Pakistan Interference and the Civil wars (1989-1994)

At the time of Soviet exit, PDPA was still in power. Pakistan’s ISI helped the Mujahideen to establish its own Government in 1989 but it failed. But the PDPA Government eventually crumbled and Afghanistan went into a civil war. George Washington University describes “Outside forces saw instability in Afghanistan as an opportunity to press their own security and political agendas”. The Mujahideen forces fell into factions and started fighting against each other, aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

The Taliban (1994-2001)

In 1994, Mullah Omar started the group called Taliban, with less than 50 armed madarssah (a religious Islamic school) students in southern town of Kandahar. Pakistan backed Taliban (for its regional interests of trans-national Islamic revolution and its enmity with India) and Taliban were able to take power in some of the southern and central provinces of Afghanistan. In 1995, the interim Government of Massoud (up in the north) was able to defeat the other Mujahideen factions in Kabul and unify the others in what is called The United Front. Post that, Massoud initiated a nationwide process with the goal to establish democratic elections but Taliban declined to participate. The Taliban, with Pakistan’s military’s help and Saudi Arabia’s money was able to take over Kabul, while Massoud retreated to North. By September 11, 2001, Taliban controlled almost 90% of Afghanistan while The United Front (Northern Allies) controlled 10% of it, mainly in the north.

Al Qaeda, Bid Laden and September 11

One must ask how does Bin Laden fit in this story. Al-Qaeda was founded by Bin Laden and others for transnational Arab people to come and help fight Soviets in the Soviet Afghan War in 1988. The next logical question to ask is- if Bin Laden was helping the Mujahideens and so was the United States, why did Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda turn against the United States? The answer to this question is Iraq’s attack on Kuwait in 1990. With Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia was at a striking distance from Kuwait. Bin laden (a Saudi national) himself offered his Mujahideen forces to defend Saudi Arabia. However, the monarch declined the offer and opted for US help instead. This was the starting point of Bin Laden’s war against America. This is when he publicly started writing against America, calling that the presence of foreign troops (US) in “the land of two mosques” was a profanity to the sacred soil. Bin Laden was banished from Saudi Arabia for publicly speaking against the monarch and he lived in Sudan for a few years before he took refuge in Afghanistan in 1996. It is from Afghanistan that he masterminded September 11 attacks.

The final question: Why did America attack Afghanistan while the enemies were Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden?

Having gone over the history of Afghanistan from 1979-2001, we can see that Afghanistan has been a very unstable region. By September 11 2001, Taliban ruled over 90% of Afghanistan under the banner of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which they had established in 1996. Taliban had applied their own strict and radical interpretation of Sharia Law, which had no precedent. The conditions were very poor in Afghanistan by 2001. Only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) recognized Taliban’s Government a rightful one between 1996 and 2001. After the attack on the United States on September 11, the US demanded Taliban to hand over Bin Laden to them, threatening them with military action if they refused. Taliban refused to hand over Bin Laden citing insufficient evidence of his involvement in the attacks. This eventually led to invasion of Afghanistan by the United States.

In the next post, I will cover how the Taliban government was toppled by the US forces by November of 2001 and what happened in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2021. Why did the US stay in Afghanistan after toppling Taliban and eliminating most of Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan by December 2001? What were the US troops doing for the last twenty years? The answer is complicated and needs a detailed analysis and a separate post. The summary of that analysis is that the US goals were too lofty and the counterinsurgency was probably unwinnable to begin with. Stay tuned!

Are we doomed? What is the future of education and work?

PS: No one knows for sure what will happen in the future. This is based on what most experts are saying about the future and my commentary on it.

I write a lot about the current education system and what needs to be done to succeed currently in different fields. Just in the last couple of months, I wrote about a career in law and a career in psychology.

However, today, I want to write a short note on the future of education and work. Is it all doom and gloom or do we have a bright future ahead?

Picture Credit:

Why does the future look very different from today as far as education and work are concerned? The reason for this is the innovation in technology, especially in the areas of machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), and biotechnology (BioTech).

What is this difference? The difference is that the skills of people can become more easily obsolete with these technological advances. For eg. in the past, people could reliably stay in one profession for decades, if not their entire lifetime. This stood well with our education system which took years to prepare us for a single profession. Think about doctors and lawyers; they require a minimum of 10 years and 7 years of post-secondary training to enter the profession. In future, with more improvements in AI and ML, the intelligence of the machine might replace many highly sought after jobs with new kinds of jobs. These new kinds of jobs are very likely to be around building, managing, maintaining, and improving these AI systems. Come 2040 or 2050, I don’t think it will make sense to spend 10 years of postsecondary life preparing for one career.

What should we do then? We should prepare for shorter careers in one area, unless we end up going into the fields with these new kinds of jobs which I mentioned in the previous section. For eg., if you are a doctor who looks at patient’s metrics and offers a diagnosis, you could potentially (not necessarily) be replaced in 20-30 years with AI doctors. So, if you are planning to start studying medicine (Bachelors/pre-med) in 2030, enter the field in 2040 and find yourself obsolete in a few years; it might not be the best use of your time.

Which existing jobs will become more important? It seems that anything which requires comforting other human beings will become more important. While some (of course, not all) doctors could become obsolete, nurses won’t because they physically care for and comfort the patients. Competent teachers will be very important because they will need to retrain the workforce every now and then. Psychologists, Counselors, and Meditation teachers will be in demand because such churning in education, and career will wreak havoc for the mental health of human beings. Elder care and child care will also grow in importance.

Should educational institutes be restructured? Yes, they should be. Learning to learn new skills will be very important going forward. The subject matter should focus more on becoming resilient and learning and retaining new skills in shorter periods of time. Change is hard on human beings, especially when it comes with a pressure of performance. The future educational institutes will focus exceedingly more on the mental health of their students.

What strategies can we implement to be ready? Diversifying our interests is the first strategy I can think of. If our jobs become irrelevant and we derive all our identities from them, we are asking for trouble. The other strategy would be to keep our learning muscles in vogue by continuously learning new things.

Is there a silver lining? The silver lining in all of this is the fact that for the most part, the future will be “objectively” better for humanity. It’s only a guess but even if we become irrelevant, there will be some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) to sustain our basic needs. We will have the time and opportunity to pursue our genuine interests if we are so inclined. The only problem with this is that this “objective” betterment is usually never the individual goal. It is the “subjective” satisfaction which human beings crave. Becoming somewhat irrelevant and not having an option to succeed in an economic marketplace can potentially undermine human satisfaction.

Despite all I have written above, I am personally very optimistic about the human resiliency. Although the challenges in the future will be more difficult, we humans will overcome them and emerge stronger on the other side, with new ideas and new strategies.

Stay strong!

Want to have a career in psychology? Here’s what you need to do.

If you are one of those people who has always been interested in human behavior and psychology, there is a way to channel your interest into a meaningful career. Human behavior stems from both the biological temperament (nature) and the environmental conditions (nurture). A career in psychology can range from sports psychology to correctional facility psychiatry.

Let’s look at the different career paths and the requirements for pursuing those paths. I will take the example of my home state of California and you can use this as a reference for your state or your country. Please consult local resources for accurate details of your region. It’s very important to break these options down since there is a lot of information and it’s not easy to find a single source which talks about this topic comprehensively.

Picture credit: Jaye Van Kirk, MA

Counselor/Therapist: Let’s say you want a meaningful career in psychology but don’t want to to get a PhD or a medical degree. In such a scenario, becoming a Therapist or a Counselor is a good option. The Board of Behavior Sciences (BBS) of state of California still requires you to get a Masters in Counseling and get a license before you can start offering therapy. There are four tracks supported by BBS: LMFT (License in Marriage and Family Therapy), LPCC (Licensed professional clinical counselors), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP). All the four tracks require Masters degrees and you can click on the alphabet soup above to look at the exact requirements and which schools offer these programs.

The main difference between these career paths is the kind of problems you will deal with. LMFTs deal with problems which have a relationship component to it, from social anxiety to marital issues. LPCCs offer treatment and counseling to those with mental health and substance abuse issues. LCSWs work in the social work setting while LEPs work in educational settings like schools and colleges. For LEP to work in a public school, they also need a PPS credential, which is offered by Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC).

I know they are too many acronyms but the meat of the issue is that all these Masters degrees have a 60 credit requirement, which is twice that of a Masters degree in Engineering. My Masters at University of Wisconsin-Madison in Electrical and Computer Engineering (I went there nearly 15 years ago) required 30 credits. Hence, these degrees will take you more time to complete. One example of an institute which offers the MFT/LPCC track degree is WISR. Their current tuition is $700/month or $8400/year and you can complete the degree online. Let’s say you are the most efficient full-time student out there. It will probably take you a minimum of 3 years to finish the degree, a total investment of $25,200.

Psychologist: What if you are even more ambitious and are not satisfied being a Licensed Counselor/Therapist and want to be a Licensed Psychologist. Remember a Counselor/Therapist who is not a Licensed Psychologist cannot diagnose mental health issues. Becoming a Licensed Psychologist is even harder than obtaining one of the four counseling licenses mentioned in the previous section.

The Psychology license is granted by California Board of Psychology (CBP). One of the requirements is to get a PhD in Psychology (research focus), or Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD, clinical focus), or Doctorate in Educational Psychology (EdD). CBP publishes a list of approved schools here. On this list, there is EdD program of California Coast University. This is probably one of the cheapest ways of becoming a licensed psychologist. However, since it’s a EdD degree and NOT a PhD or PsyD, this kind of psychologist will be most useful in educational settings. This University charges $290/unit and you need to finish 66 units to get the EdD degree. This amounts to a total investment of $19,140. It will require a minimum of 3 years to finish this program.

Psychiatrist: Let’s say you are not satisfied with diagnosing mental illnesses or providing counseling/therapy but actually want to prescribe medication to treat the illnesses; in that case; you want to be a psychiatrist. I will only mention that becoming a psychiatrist is very similar to becoming a doctor and will leave it at that since medicine is already a well-understood path.

Miscellaneous careers in psychology: What if you don’t have the time (bare minimum 3 years to just get the Masters degree in counseling or the EdD degree and bare minimum of many years to get the medical degree) to invest in pursuing the above paths but you still want to do something in the field of psychology. In that case, you can go for a vanilla Masters (MS) in Psychology, not leading to any license or certification, A degree of this kind will take a minimum of 9 months to get at the California Cost University. The cost of this degree would be $8970 (39 credits at the rate of $230/credit). This university is accredited by DEAC (Distance Education Accrediting Commission) and the coursework is self-paced and completely online. Some private companies and universities might not recognize this degree as equivalent to a degree from say University of California, but most public institutions recognize this degree.

So what can you do with this degree? You can take up a job in HR (Human Resources) Department of a private sector, work in administrative positions in all industries or become an adjunct lecturer/professor/faculty of psychology on the side. For eg., an adjunct faculty pool job posting shows that the minimum requirements for this position are: Master’s Degree in Psychology OR Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology AND Master’s Degree in Counseling, Sociology, Statistics, Neuroscience, or Social Work or the equivalent. The starting salary range specified as follows: Salary Range Hourly Lecture: $72.76-$108.77; Hourly Lab: $62.47-$93.39 DOE (Depends on Experience).

Show me the money: The more practical of my readers would actually want to know how much can they make with these licenses and degrees. This website shows that the median compensation (including the value of all benefits) of a Psychologist PhD is $165,000 in California. The median compensation for a Psychiatrist in California is $348,000. A Mental Health Clinician (LCSW/LPCC) gets a median compensation of $102,000 in California.

Conclusion: While a career in psychology is not as high paying as Hi Tech (exception Psychiatry), it could be fulfilling for those who enjoy helping people and revel in the intricacies of the human mind. The other disadvantage of this career choice is that it requires a lot of investment of time (especially the licensed tracks of Counseling, Psychology and Psychiatry) and hence opportunity costs. Such an investment is worthwhile if you know for sure that this is what you want to do in your life. If you want to pursue this as a part time profession, I would not recommend pursuing the three main tracks and instead recommend pursuing the Miscellaneous Careers track.

I hope you enjoyed this article. It took me a lot of effort to collect all the data and present it in a digestible form and I hope it will help someone who wants to pursue a career in psychology.

When should you go to law school?

As the new year is approaching, I will start getting back to the core of this blog- helping people with information about Education. I have decided to start with “Law School” as my first topic after a long break from Educational topics.

Both in the US and abroad, becoming a lawyer is a very worthy goal. Even people who live in countries like India and China travel all the way to the UK and the US for law degrees. Most notably, Mahatma Gandhi studied law at University College London Law School, way back in the late 1880s

President Obama and former President Bill Clinton (lawyer Presidents). It’s known that President Obama (Harvard law) had student debt. It’s unclear if President Clinton incurred student debt for his law degree at Yale.

In the US, a lot of Presidents have had law degrees, so do Senators and Congressmen/Congresswomen. It makes sense that some of the lawmakers of the country (Legislative branch) will be lawyers by profession. Needless to say, the judicial branch (the law interpreters and justice administrators)  is composed of lawyers. Given all this, it is not surprising that people in the Executive Branch (law enforcers) also tend to have law degrees. Many (obviously not all) of these people listed above come from wealthy families whose degrees were paid for by their parents.

But what if you don’t expect your parents to pay for your cushy law degree. How do you make a decision regarding pursuing a law degree in the United States then?  As far as international students are concerned, I would not recommend this pursuit if they intend to go back to their home countries. Law is country-specific and it doesn’t make sense to pursue the degree in a country where you will not be practicing it. The domestic US students should look at the employment outcomes and the cost of attendance. Remember, this is an additional 3-year degree in the US, post the undergrad, and any debt the students accumulate during law school will be in addition to their undergraduate debt. I recommend looking at the following metrics:

  1. Student Debt: A rule of thumb is that total student debt should not be > 1.5 times 1st year’s salary. Law school debt goes as high as $250,000 (if not more) and only a small percentage of graduates will be making more than $167,000 in their 1st year of work. A more conservative rule of thumb is for the student debt at the time of graduation to be less than the 1st year salary. How many of us can reasonably expect a 250K job after graduating from law school? I am not saying that this rule should be followed religiously. But this is a good indication of where your prospective law school lies on the debt/salary ratio continuum. To take an example, if the debt accumulated from your law program is $240,000 and the job you can score with this degree pays $60,000/year, the ratio is 4, which is a clear indication that on this career trajectory, you will have years and years of repaying the debt, with harsh financial opportunity costs.
  2. Job opportunities: If you want to make money from a law degree, there are two types of jobs- high paying big law-firm jobs or Federal judicial clerkships which lead to big law-firm jobs. Both are hard to get by. If you want to change the world and want to become a social justice/civil rights lawyer, there won’t be much money in it (President Obama practiced it and he shares his financial story in his memoirs). There is another path of pursuing a state and federal government job which is desirable because of both the nature of work and the Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. The nature of work is more desirable because it is in the Public interest even though it doesn’t pay big bucks. The money part could be offset by the Debt Forgiveness program, which means that you hold on to the job for at least 10 years and after 10 years of reduced rate loan payments, the rest of your student debt is forgiven.
  3. When and where to go then? Law Professor Paul Campos suggests the following and you can use this as a rough guideline based on what portion of the sticker price will you be paying.
    1. Paying the full price: To a handful of 3-6 top tier schools.
    2. At a significantly reduced price: 7-10 truly national schools.
    3. At no cost other than opportunity cost: Three dozen regional schools.

In conclusion, if you will be incurring debt for attending law school (aka your parents won’t be footing the bill), you will have to consider the metrics presented above seriously if you want to avoid harsh financial opportunity costs (remember, you can always go to law school without worrying about these metrics, if you can get into one and are willing to take on any amounts of debt, provided you don’t care about your long term financial well-being). On the other hand, if by virtue of the lottery of birth, you are in an advantageous position of not incurring student debt, your choices can be more flexible. You can even afford to become a public defender/prosecutor in that case without much worry, if that’s what floats your boat, without incurring harsh financial opportunity costs. 

Happy law school hunting!