ABA Profile of the Legal Profession: Legal Deserts and Law School Debt

Profile of the Legal Profession Forty percent of counties and county-equivalents in the U.S. have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents, according to the American Bar Association’s 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession. The second edition of the profile also reported continuing racial equity and law school debt challenges, which have the potential to be exacerbated by COVID-19.

The ABA’s Profile of the Legal Profession is a compilation of the latest statistics in the legal profession. Two new sections were created specifically for 2020: a statistical look at legal deserts and a survey of how law school debt is impacting the lives of young lawyers.

Vast legal deserts

America’s more than 1.3 million lawyers are far from equally distributed across the country, according to the report. This has created large legal deserts across the U.S., in which residents have to travel far to find a lawyer.

There are more than 3,100 counties and county-equivalents in the U.S., and 54 of them have no lawyers. Another 182 have only one or two lawyers. However, simply having local lawyers doesn’t guarantee public access. Many of those lawyers work for the government or at corporations or nonprofits.

Illinois ranks sixth in its lawyer-to-resident ratio, with 4.9 lawyers per every 1,000 residents. The state falls behind New York state, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Though Illinois ranks high in both the number of lawyers and lawyer-to-resident ratio, this doesn’t mean the state’s attorney population is spread evenly throughout its 102 counties. Cook County has 46,345 of the state’s 62,720 lawyers, followed by DuPage County with 4,312 lawyers. The southern counties of Hardin and Pulaski have only three lawyers each.

legal deserts

1 dot = 10 lawyers. Statistics for all states are provided in the 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are reproduced here. Sources: Supreme Court of Illinois, Indiana Supreme Court, Supreme Court of Ohio


Staggering law school debt

Attracting recent law school graduates to rural areas can be difficult. Add to that staggering law school debt and many law students are opting for higher-paying jobs in urban areas, according to the Profile of the Legal Profession. At law school graduation, the median cumulative educational debt was $160,000 for those who completed the ABA 2020 Survey on Student Loan Debt. And, more than 40% reported that their current debt is higher than the debt they had when they graduated from law school.

Heavy loan debt is causing many new lawyers to postpone major life decisions, according to the survey. Citing debt concerns, 48% of respondents have postponed or decided not to have children, 29% have postponed or decided not to get married, and 56% have postponed or decided not to buy a house.

Black and Hispanic law school graduates generally take on more student loan debt than white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016 Black students had a cumulative school debt of $198,760, Hispanic students held $149,573, and white students accumulated $100,510.

Loan debt also impacts job choice, according to the Survey on Student Loan Debt. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they chose a job that pays more instead of a job they wanted. This poses a significant disadvantage in recruiting new graduates to smaller law firms in rural areas, which don’t tend to pay as much as their larger big-city counterparts. The highest average salary for lawyers in the San Francisco area was almost $190,000 in 2019. The average salary in Kokomo, IN was $55,000.

Next week we’ll dig deeper into the 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession to explore diversity in the legal community and the state of lawyer well-being.

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