President's Letter

ABA calls on lawyers to join push to tackle the student debt crisis

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ABA President Reginald Turner

Photo of Reginald Turner by Mitch Higgins/ABA Media Relations.

Graduating from law school and starting a legal career should be an exciting and hopeful time. But for far too many, student debt causes apprehension and struggle.

A 2020 ABA survey found the average debt for law school graduates has increased to more than $150,000—a staggering amount that affects their personal and professional lives and adversely impacts the economy.

The survey found 95% of respondents borrowed money for their JD degrees. Of those who borrowed, more than 80% indicated student debt has disrupted the trajectory of their career or personal life, causing them to weigh salary more heavily in their job selection or put off home purchases, marriage, children or vacations.

While some law school graduates land high-paying jobs at big firms, that is not the reality for the majority. Many new lawyers work at lower-paying public sector jobs—at nonprofits serving disadvantaged individuals; in prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices; and at local, state and federal government agencies.

Two-thirds of lawyers surveyed by the ABA in 2021 said they suffer from high or overwhelming stress because of their debts. And the situation does not always improve after starting their careers. The same survey found 40% of respondents reported their student debt had increased after graduating from law school.

As with many problems in society, the brunt falls disproportionately on people of color. Borrowers who are Black reported higher JD debt balances than any other ethnic group and were most likely to report having a higher debt balance than at graduation.

As former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski wrote, “College is part of the American Dream, it shouldn’t be part of the American financial nightmare.”

While the ABA has lobbied for years to reduce the impact of law school debt, the pandemic has brought the crushing burden into stark reality. This crisis affects not only lawyers. According to the Department of Education, there is $1.59 trillion of outstanding student loan debt. But students pursuing law degrees average more than five times the amount of debt that undergraduates have, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

President Joe Biden has extended a moratorium on repayment of student loans until Jan. 31. But for many who suffered economic hardship during the pandemic, their loan situations will only get worse.

In September, the ABA joined more than a dozen professional groups for a grassroots event—the Student Debt Week of Action—to urge the White House and Congress to relieve student loan debt. ABA members worked with the American Institute of Architects, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Realtors, the American Association of Medical Colleges and other groups.

The ABA urges Congress and the Biden administration to:

• Forgive some amount of student loan debt.

• Offer borrowers the ability to refinance federal student loans at lower interest rates.

• Extend the current student loan forbearance period.

• Strengthen the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which clears the remaining balance on loans for certain workers in public service after 10 years of qualifying payments.

• Support the Fresh Start Through Bankruptcy Act of 2021, which would allow struggling borrowers to seek a bankruptcy discharge for federal student loans after a 10-year waiting period.

The event was a success, with more than 1,600 digital letters sent to Congress and an extensive social media presence. But it is imperative that the legal community continues to lobby and keep the government focused on lasting solutions to the student loan debt crisis. You can find our student debt toolkit, which includes resources to learn more and advocate on the issue, on the ABA website’s Grassroots Action Center.

We must help remove the life and career impediments of our colleagues who suffer from debt. We cannot discourage our best and brightest from following a legal career because of a fear of incurring debt. Finding a solution is vital to a healthy legal profession.

This story was originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Tackling the Debt Crisis: ABA calls on lawyers to join push to lower student loan balances.”

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