Legal Education

New findings published on law school debt

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A survey released Tuesday asked young attorneys if their legal education was worth the cost, and fewer than half said yes. However, 60.9% of respondents said that if they had to do it over, they would still attend law school.

The data is part of a report, Student Debt: the Holistic Impact on Today’s Young Lawyer, published by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and the AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence. A group of more than 1,300 YLD members under the age of 36 in a variety of practice areas made up the survey pool. Of all respondents, 61% were white, 17.4% were Latinx, 6.8% were Black, 4.2% were Asian, 4.1% were multiracial and 2.2% were Indigenous, while 3.5% did not report their race.

The report ties in with the ABA’s Student Debt Week of Action, which includes a livestream event on the YLD’s Facebook page, according to a news release. In 2020, as part of the ABA’s annual Profile of the Legal Profession, the YLD released a survey of 1,084 attorneys, whose median age was 32. The median cumulative figure for students reporting their debt load was $160,000.

Respondents in the 2020 survey indicated their student debt led to life-changing decisions, such as delaying children or buying a home and, in some cases, choosing a job because of its higher pay.

The 2021 survey, which was compiled in the spring, took a deeper dive into those questions, with data parsed out by loan amounts and race. Among respondents reporting more than $200,000 in law school debt, 18.4% were Black, 14.4% were white, 8.3% were multiracial, 7.2% were Latinx, 7.1% were Indigenous and 6.8% were Asian.

Respondents were asked if their student loan debt prevented them from saving for an emergency fund. In the case of Latinx respondents, 48.6% said yes, as did 45% of multiracial respondents, 44.8% of Black respondents, 44.2% of white respondents, 34.1% of Asian respondents and 28.6% of indigenous respondents.

A small number of respondents didn’t have any law school debt at graduation. No Black attorneys were in that category, and the racial group with the highest percentage was Asians, at 11.4%. Additionally, 9% of those respondents were Latinx, 7.1% were Indigenous, 5.1% were multiracial and 3.5% were white.

Those with no law school debt were asked how they did it. For that group, 68.1% reported financial support from family or friends, 58.9% said they used personal savings, 58.4% had scholarships and grants, 34.1% covered costs though job income, 9.2% had employers with tuition reimbursement plans and 7.6% relied on credit cards. An additional 8.6% had answers described as “other” in the category.

Among respondents with more than $200,000 in student debt, 36.4% indicated they could not qualify for loan, mortgage or apartment rental without a cosigner. That was also true for 23.6% of respondents who had between $100,001 and $200,000 in student debt.

Additionally, 43.5% of respondents with more than $200,000 in law school debt reported their credit scores had been adversely affected. That was also true for 29.9% of those with debt between $100,001 and $200,000.

Among respondents with more than $200,000 in law school debt at graduation, 56.5% reported they would still get a law degree if they had it to do over. That was also reported by 58.7% of the respondents with school debt between $100,001 and $200,000, and 65.5% of those who indicated they had no student loan debt.

Respondents were also asked if their legal education was worth the cost, and only 47% agreed with that statement.

The survey addressed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, too. Only 19.4% of respondents were in the PSLF program, and of that group, 69.9% found that it allowed them to work in their chosen profession.

In 2016, the ABA sued the U.S. Department of Education after it changed its interpretation of PSLF regulations. In 2019, a federal judge found that the department rule changes were arbitrary and capricious, and the action settled in 2020 after the agency agreed to recognize ABA employees as public service workers who are eligible for student loan forgiveness.

Updated Sept. 21 at 4:32 p.m., to add survey link.

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