The Unique Problem with Student Debt in Law School

By John Brophy, Staff Writer

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Nobody wants to admit it, but employment search in law school is an ends-driven system, which drives students to pursue jobs that will pay the bills, rather than what they can contribute to the profession. In 2020, the American Bar Association published a survey indicating that the average debt of a law school graduate in $145,000.[1] A third of those graduates self-reported that they chose employment based on salary, not passion.[2] Law school is not unique when it comes to student debt, especially among similar professional programs.[3]

What makes law students unique from other doctoral students—and what makes student debt so dangerous—is that law students are responsible for employing themselves. Career services centers often aid students in finding jobs, but it is ultimately the law student as an individual who is responsible for their career. This fact is largely responsible for some of the brilliant innovation by lawyers across the nation who forged their own paths, but rising student debt makes that path far more treacherous. The average law student must consider how they will repay six figures of debt with growing interest when starting on that path.[4] In this case, the ‘average’ law student is every law student, minus the 4.8% who do not take out a loan.[5] Without being seriously addressed, the legal profession risks a vacuum of new lawyers who take jobs just to pay their debt.

Private versus public sector employment is perhaps the boldest dichotomy in the diverse field of legal employment. At alarming rates, graduates chose one side of the tracks for financial motivations, but find themselves pigeon-holed at similar rates.[6] Nearly half of graduates working in private practice or the corporate sector report that they took the job for salary, not preference.[7]Almost two-thirds of public sector graduates report that they chose the job in hopes of receiving loan forgiveness.[8] On both ends of this dichotomy, graduates select employment based on their debt situation instead of their passions.

Some of those public sector graduates then reported feeling stuck in the public sector due to the ten year window of Public Service Loan Forgiveness (‘PSLF’).[9] On the flip side, private practitioners may seek to transition to a service-oriented role after serving corporate clients, but “don’t think [they] can afford to have any less income.”[10] Neither end is being served adequately, and salary is often too great a barrier to explore additional paths in the legal field.

Loans cause immense stress and do more than nudge a student towards a particular trajectory. When graduates were given blank prompts in the survey, they overwhelmingly discussed significant mental health concerns.[11] Graduates discuss having a passion for the law and the profession, while feeling too burdened by debt to enjoy simple pleasures.[12]

After concluding its report on the survey, the American Bar Association encouraged quantitative research on the issue and inquired into whether this issue is truly isolated to the legal profession[13] Regardless of the results of follow-up studies on the matter, members of the legal community should be concerned with the momentum of the public-versus-private employment choice for new law students. 

The Court addressed the topic of student loan forgiveness earlier this year.[14] It heard two separate challenges to President Biden’s invocation of the HEROES Act.[15] The first challenge, Biden v. Nebraska,[16] comes from a coalition of states that allege the relief program was pretextual to fulfill a campaign promise.[17] The second challenge, Department. of Education v. Brown,[18] was brought by two individuals who did not qualify for relief.[19] In each case, lengthy oral arguments probed the issues of standing, executive authority, the applicability of the HEROES Act, and the major questions doctrine.[20]

It is unclear how the Court will rule in either matter, and the program will remain paused until the challenges are resolved..[21] As the major questions doctrine analysis gains footing, the Biden administration will need to convince the Court that the Department of Education had the authority to forgive debt under the HEROES act.[22] The HEROES Act was enacted in 2003 and gives the Department of Education the power to cancel student debt in the wake of a ‘national emergency’ to avoid burdening lenders in a crisis.[23]

Law students would benefit greatly should the program be upheld by the Court. While it is unlikely that ten or twenty thousand dollars of debt forgiveness will alleviate the financial burden of the average law student, the President’s decision indicates that student debt forgiveness is a major issue at the national level. However, members of the legal community should be weary to rely on such programs as a sustainable long-term approach. 

The wonder of the legal community is that there are infinite areas of specialty, and law students should be encouraged to find their niche and thrive. No student should be thinking they must take a public sector job and stick with it for a decade to be able to pay their bills.[24] Nor should they take a job working in a corporate transactional setting to be able to afford a family vacation.[25]Issues regarding student debt must be re-evaluated to allow students to follow their passions.

[1] American Bar Association, 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report, (Last Visited Apr. 18, 2023).

[2] Id. at 9.

[3] Jennifer Calonia, (May 13, 2022).

[4] Id. at 10.

[5] Id. at 7. (emphasis added).

[6] Id. at 15.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Student Loan Forgiveness (Last Visited Apr. 18, 2023).

[10] American Bar Association, 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report, (Last Visited Apr. 18, 2023).

[11] Id. at 19.

[12] Id. at 20.

[13] Id. at 27.

[14] Michael Stratford and Josh Gerstein, 5 Key Moments from the Supreme Court Showdown Over Biden’s Student Debt Relief, (Feb. 28, 2023).

[15] Ariane de Vogue, What to Watch for as the Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Biden’s Student Loan Deft Relief Plan, (Feb. 28, 2023).

[16]Biden v. Nebraska, et al., No. 22A444 (2022).

[17] Id.

[18] Dept. of Education, et al., Applicants v. Myra Brown, et al., No. 22A489 (2022).

[19] Id.


[21] Michael Stratford and Josh Gerstein, 5 Key Moments from the Supreme Court Showdown Over Biden’s Student Debt Relief, (Feb. 28, 2023).

[22] Tierney Sneed and Devan Cole, Takeaways from the Supreme Court Oral Arguments in Cases Challenging Biden’s Student Debt Relief Plan, (Feb. 28, 2023).

[23] Eric Levitz, Why the Supreme Court Might Uphold Student-Debt Relief, (Mar. 6, 2023).

[24] Id. at 16.

[25] Id. at 13.

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