A recent survey from the Young Lawyers Division of the ABA found, to the surprise of very few, that new and young lawyers are coming out of law school with cringeworthy amounts of debt. According to the ABA report, three-quarters of graduates finish law school with at least $100,000 of student loan debt. More than half of new and young lawyers have in excess of $150,000 to pay off on their student loans. A select few — although not really that few at 25 percent plus — finish law school with more than $200,000 to pay off.
Not so long ago, I wrote about how lawyers don’t make as much money as members of the general public might suspect, and how a good chunk of the profession is struggling to pay even the interest on the low end of the student debt figures revealed by the ABA survey. It’s been pointed out to me that lawyers, compared to student borrowers in a number of other fields, tend to have a lower default rate on their student loans. But the fact that a good number of lawyers are eventually paying off the oppressive debts hanging over their heads does not mean everything is humming along perfectly.
The obvious, but alarming, findings of the ABA study include that “[s]tudent loans deeply impact personal lives and decisions of new lawyers” and that “[s]tudent loans force lawyers to take unwanted career paths.” People who start their careers owing more than a house costs in many parts of the country have to take and keep jobs that pay as much as possible, whether or not those jobs are fulfilling, and whether or not those jobs are good for society. Then they get good at those jobs, get pigeonholed by their past work experiences, and voila, what was meant to be a temporary compromise of values becomes a career. It’s a recipe for depression and despondency.
We’re not going to sell members of the public on feeling bad for lawyers though. They hate us. So, we need to take a different approach if we want the government’s help in saving our profession from itself.
Federal employees and contractors can lose their security clearances by having too much debt. Too much debt is a security threat because it can negatively influence people’s decisions.
If your lawyer pressures you to settle your case too quickly because it’s a contingency fee or flat fee case and turning over cases means more money, that is bad for you. If your lawyer is exhausted or depressed, that is bad for you. Even if you have no need to retain a lawyer yourself, when too many brilliant young lawyers are taking lucrative jobs to help corporations avoid taxes instead of following their passions in public interest work (because they need to pay off their debts), well, that is bad for everyone.
Some federal student loan debt forgiveness might be forthcoming, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Joe Biden himself has an underwhelming track record in that department. Maybe what we need, though, isn’t just debt forgiveness. Maybe lawyers need a grand bargain, a new contract with society.
Lawyers can do important things that no one else can. We can fend off courtroom coup attempts. We can stop large-scale projects that are moving forward without adequate environmental review. When their romantic relationships don’t work out, we can help average people, even ones who can’t pay, get workable custody and parenting time schedules for their kids. Though it doesn’t always feel like it, we can make amazing things happen. But our abilities are going underutilized, because so many of us need to enthrall ourselves in service of insurmountable debt.
Law school student-loan debt and access to justice are at different ends of the same problem. Some of it is laziness, some of it is just regular old greed, but a big part of why lawyers aren’t doing more to help the voiceless is because they can’t. The existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is a joke, and not everyone can graduate from law school debt-free like I did. So maybe a bargain’s in order. Lawyers have unique untapped resources to offer society, and society holds the keys to unlocking them. If lawyers can’t negotiate some sort of grand solution to trade better societal use of our abilities for debt relief, I don’t know who can.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.