ABA Addresses Law Graduates' Job, Debt Woes

The association's young lawyers division offers resolutions regarding financial and employment issues.


I love being a lawyer, but I took on too much debt. It changes how many children I'll have. It's impacted the kind of law I've practiced."

—Keri-Ann Baker

Member, American Bar Association's young lawyers division The American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division, "the home for young lawyers," proposed Resolutions 111A and 111B at the ABA's recent 2011 annual meeting in Toronto to address problems facing recent graduates of law school and potential law students: debilitating amounts of educational debt and the lack of accurate information on job prospects.

[See how U.S. News is urging law deans to improve job data.]

As the Young Lawyers Division's 111A Report detailed, it is alarming that educational debt, which is incurred almost exclusively by a young student population, now exceeds credit card debt in the United States. Over the past 30 years, the cost of college has increased almost twice as quickly as inflation and the cost of a legal education has gone up at between double and triple the general rate of inflation.

[See U.S. News's Paying for Grad School guide.]

In response, Resolution 111A seeks to assist individuals who are experiencing financial hardship due to excessive levels of student loan debt but are not currently covered by federal law. It asks both Congress and commercial lenders to: extend federal student-loan repayment terms and federal student-loan programs to individuals who borrowed from commercial lenders; allow individuals to qualify for income-based repayment, consolidation, and other forms of loan repayment assistance; and create loan forgiveness programs for public service lawyers similar to the Direct Loan Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program authorized by Congress for health care professionals in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. It also asks Congress to raise or eliminate the income levels associated with the federal income tax deduction for interest paid on student loans.

Especially in these difficult economic times, the Young Lawyers Division also recognizes that it is incumbent upon the legal profession and law schools to provide potential and current law students with accurate employment and financial prospects. According to the Young Lawyers Division 111B Report, there is a disconnect between law students' "perception" of their employment prospects upon completion of their law school education, and the "reality" of what law students achieve.

For example, according to a National Association for Law Placement (NALP) report, 8.7 percent of the class of 2009 was unemployed (based on the 36,046 employed graduates out of 40,833 for whom employment status was known) and nearly 25 percent of all jobs (including judicial clerkships) were temporary, a far higher percentage than in earlier years. Notably, 41 percent of all public interest jobs were reported as temporary.

[See which law school grads get the most judicial clerkships.]

It should be noted that NALP also reported that law schools were actively working to provide employment for their students: 42 percent of law schools reported that on-campus post-graduate jobs were provided for law students (which could have been the reason for an increase in academic employment from 2.3 percent for the class of 2008, to 3.5 percent for the class of 2009) although 69 percent of all jobs reported in the academic category were reported as being temporary jobs. Law schools also created bridge programs, fellowships, and grant programs for public interest work, which provided an estimated 800 jobs. Unfortunately, NALP expects that the overall employment rate for new law school graduates is likely to further decline for the classes of 2010 and 2011.

This increasingly difficult employment environment is exacerbated by two factors. First, according to the Young Lawyers Division, some law schools are reporting unrealistic salary averages. Second, many students take out more than $100,000 in student loans, not including the debt they accumulated as undergraduates.

[See which law degrees have the most financial value at graduation.]

Resolution 111B addresses these issues by urging law schools to provide greater transparency regarding the job prospects of law school graduates and the cost of law school. It urges ABA-Approved Law Schools to: identify whether graduates have obtained full-time or part-time employment within the legal profession or in alternative professions and whether such employment is permanent or temporary; display this employment data, information on the actual cost of a law school education and the average cost of living incurred while attending law school on websites, catalogues, and in acceptance notices; and present data regarding graduates' salaries on their websites in a manner which protects the privacy of the graduates.

Finally, it requests the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to consider revising the Standards for Approval of Law Schools to require law schools to provide on their websites, and in other reasonable methods of communication, more data on employment and placement of graduates.

Both resolution 111A and 111B were passed by the House of Delegates. Unfortunately, while the resolutions do serve to establish the organization's position on issues, they are not binding. Nonetheless, they are a good first step in helping address the issues of high educational debt and the true cost of going to school for law students and others.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.