Law Students

Law student debt averages about $165K at graduation, creating stress and restricting choices, survey says

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Young lawyers are so impacted by student debt that they are making life-changing decisions, such as delaying children and, in some cases, choosing a job because of its higher pay, according to a survey posted online Monday.

More than 75% of those surveyed had at least $100,000 in student loans at graduation, according to the March survey of more than 1,000 newer lawyers and recent law grads. Over half had more than $150,000 in student loans, and one in four had $200,000 or more in student loans.

The average in total loans at law school graduation was about $165,000. More than 95% of the respondents took out loans to attend law school.

“High student loan debt is all but a prerequisite to becoming a lawyer today,” says the survey report by the ABA Young Lawyers Division. A press release is here.

About half of those surveyed chose to postpone or not to have children at all, and about 29% postponed or decided not to marry because of student debt.

More than 37% said they chose a job that pays more money “instead of a job I really wanted.” About 17% said they chose a job that qualifies for loan forgiveness over the job they really wanted.

Lawyers were also delaying purchases because of student debt. More than 58% said they postponed or decided not to take a vacation; more than 55% postponed or decided not to buy a house; and about 46% postponed or decided not to buy a car.

Asked for “other” responses, mental health issues were frequently cited as an impact. Others included limited job choices, difficulties in providing for family or children, effects on savings, limited housing choices and living with parents.

Verbatim responses included:

• “It’s unbearable, and I cannot pay enough each month to cover my loans; my balance climbs even after a month’s payment.”

• “After student loans and caring for my sickly parents, I have very little to have of my own. This means I am forever beholden to law firm work and feel like I will never be able to afford a home or have a family of my own. It’s too expensive. Additionally, there is anxiety that comes with the financial stress. For first-generation immigrants like myself, caring for extended family in a multigenerational household is challenging.”

• “Constant financial stress. Inability to save. No safety net.”

• “I lie awake at night worried about whether I will be able to give my children the life my parents gave me and whether I will ever know the feeling of true financial stability, which is what I was seeking when I went to law school.”

• “It turns out I hate being a lawyer, but I can’t afford to do anything else. My mental health has aged me prematurely. I can’t afford to stay working in my area due to increased cost of living.”

• “Student loans made me hate the profession.”

“Over the long term,” the report said, “we continue to ask new graduates to absorb a larger debt burden than their predecessors. The class of 2020—as their plans to become licensed abruptly devolved into chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic—will almost assuredly bear the biggest burden we have ever asked of any modern class of lawyers.”

The report makes several recommendations, including that ABA entities and other bar associations focus on policy positions and lobbying to help alleviate the debt load.

“The student loan problem represents a threat to the stability of the profession, and its experienced and successful members should be leading and participating in efforts to help reduce the student loan burden on their younger colleagues,” the report says.

Other recommendations include addressing the high costs of legal education, considering alternative loan-servicing models, and changing bankruptcy standards to make it easier to discharge student debt.

Called the 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report, the survey was also part of the 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, released in July.

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