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April 29, 2011 3:55 PM

Debt Loading

Posted by Steven Harper

The University of Virginia Law School has offered its unemployed 3Ls stipends to defray the cost of bar application fees ($500) and bar exam prep courses ($1500). This follows a protest held during admitted students weekend, when some UVA students wore (and sold) T-shirts saying, "$40,000 a year and no jobs." Of course, such public turmoil is the tip of a mammoth iceberg that isn't limited to UVA.

The absence of jobs--even for graduates of top schools--is especially dire because repayment of educational loans typically begins when higher education ends. The collateral damage of such debt can persist for generations. As one analyst recently told the The New York Times, "A lot of people will still be paying off their student loans when it’s time for their kids to go to college." According to the same article, last year's college graduates left school with $24,000 in debt.

For those moving on to law school, $24,000 soon looks like the good old days. The 2009 Law School Survey of Student Engagement reported this stunning fact:

"The percentage of full-time U.S. students expecting to graduate owing more than $120,000 is up notably in 2009...29 percent of students expect to graduate with this level of debt."

Almost half of all law students expect to cross the $100,000 debt threshold before getting their degrees.

Here's the disconnect: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all lawyers nine months after graduation is $68,500. Try servicing $120,000+ debt on that budget. Average compensation for all attorneys in the United States is $129,000 a year.

Why the gap between investment and reward? The better question is, why not? The BLS numbers don't appear in the law school recruiting brochures that tout big law's $160,000 starting salaries. (Nor do they disclose the downside that comes with those high-paying jobs.)

Likewise, most schools don't report meaningful employment data, either. When they collectively tell U.S. News that the most recent average employment rate nine months after graduation is 93 percent, something is amiss--like the fact that employed can mean being a greeter at Wal-Mart or flipping burgers at McDonald's. In an insightful new article in The New Republic, Professor Paul Campos calculates the true rate--graduates working in full-time legal jobs nine months out--to be well under 50 percent.

Revealing the truth would almost certainly drive down applications, compromise U.S. News rankings, and threaten law schools' bottom lines. That might force many deans to reconsider what they're doing to their own students. Too many administrators hide behind rhetoric--"free choice," "markets work," and "students should take personal responsibility"--as excuses to disregard their own roles as the profession's most important fiduciaries. When ignorance and misinformation reign, choices are distorted and markets don't work. I often wonder if law school deans who have kids the same age as those they're duping behave differently from the rest. Or do they fault students' "failure to take responsibility," too?

When law schools move away from a critical aspect of their professional mission--accurately and completely informing prospective lawyers about the career path ahead--the profession itself bears the ultimate consequences. My article, "Great Expectations Meet Painful Realities," in the current issue of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association's semiannual publication, Circuit Rider has more on all of this (starting at page 24).

Fraud can be overt--by commission--or it can occur by omission when there's a duty to speak. Revealing good facts can create an obligation to disclose the bad ones. Greater candor won’t stop the flow of talented applicants to law schools. Nor should it. The legal profession is still a noble calling. But it has also become a way for some educational institutions improperly to persuade the next generation to mortgage its own future--literally.

Some call it the next big bubble. If it bursts, I'm not sure what that will mean. Because of statutory revisions in 2005, bankruptcy doesn't discharge student loan debt unless the difficult "undue hardship" test is met. The era of big bailouts has passed, so that's an unlikely solution as well.

Perhaps we'll see a new growth industry in the revival of an ancient concept: debtors prisons. Law school deans who lost sight of their true obligations to their students and their profession should run them--without pay.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

 

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I'm about to graduate from a top law school with tens of thousands of dollars in loans, and many of my friends will have closer to $200,000 in loans. Many of those same friends also do not have jobs lined up for after graduation. Having so much student loan debt will affect our lives for years and impact major life decisions, such as buying a house and having kids, particularly for those people who are unable to secure BigLaw jobs. I am very worried about the impact that student loans are going to have on my generation as a whole.

I created a forum at www.repaymystudentloans.com to provide a supportive community for people dealing with the stresses of having student loan debt. Please feel free to join the discussion.

Steven, not only is this an unsustainable economic model, it is an unsustainable labor model. An industry built upon a work force that is crushed by debt, anxiety, and unrelenting pressure to bill hours is not a long-term model in a free economy.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

Students really should be told that we could close EVERY law school in the U.S., and not admit any new lawyers, for the next 10 years and not suffer from a shortage of lawyers. All of the "private" law schools beyond the top 15 or so should be required to tell students that, except for the top 2 or 3% of students, they are not likely to find jobs that will justify the tuition cost they will incur. Shame on the law schools, and shame on the government for funding or insuring these student loans that will never be repaid.

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