Is Law School Worth the Cost? Fewer Than Half of Young Attorneys Say ‘Yes’

law student sitting in the breezewayWas your law school education worth the cost? Fewer than half of young attorneys believe it was according to a new survey on law school debt from the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) and AccessLex Institute. And while almost 61% said they would still pursue a J.D., fewer would attend the same law school. 

In May 2021, the YLD and AccessLex surveyed more than 1,300 lawyers age 36 or younger on the impact of law school debt. The survey built on a 2020 study of new lawyers, which found that law school debt was impacting major life milestones like buying a home and starting a family.  

The results of the 2021 survey, which delved deeper into the financial and emotional impact of student debt, were released last week.  

Borrowing remains prevalent, with roughly 90% of respondents taking out J.D. loans that totaled an average of $108,000 at graduation.  

Among respondents reporting more than $200,000 in law school debt, 18% were Black, 14% were white, 8% were multiracial, 7% were Latino, 7% were Asian, and 4% were Indigenous.  

A small number of respondents weren’t carrying any law school debt at graduation. No Black attorneys were included in this group.  

Stressed out 

Ninety percent of respondents said their student debt had disrupted major life milestones, like deciding to buy a house (52%) or postponing or forgoing children (39%).  

Notable was the number (33%) who said their debt caused them to take a job that was less focused on public service or “doing good” than they had anticipated when they began law school.   

About two-thirds of respondents said they felt high or overwhelming stress over their finances in general. This was more common in those with loan balances exceeding $100,000 or $200,000.   

Sixty-five percent said their debt or monthly payments caused stress and more than half reported feelings of regret or guilt. A majority of those with debt of over $100,000 said their loan obligation caused them to feel depressed or hopeless.  

Financially insecure  

More than half of respondents said they feel financially insecure, but the impact differs somewhat by race and ethnicity.  

When asked how confident they were that they could pay for a $1,000 emergency, 70% of Asian and almost 60% of white respondents felt highly confident, but just 41% of Black respondents, 34% of multiracial respondents, 29% of Hispanic/Latino respondents, and 3% of Indigenous respondents expressed the same confidence.  

Moreover, 37% of multiracial respondents, 36% of Indigenous respondents, and 30% of Hispanic/Latino repondents said their debt impacted their ability to provide healthcare coverage for themselves and their families.  

An impact on the ability to save for an emergency fund and their children’s future was prevalent among most racial/ethnic groups.   

A lack of understanding before law school  

Just 22% of respondents said they were satisfied with the loan counseling they received before graduation. And 58% of respondents said they didn’t have a clear understanding of how student debt would impact their personal and professional lives before law school.  

Moreover, while 44% of borrowers indicated they knew how to access free, public financial education resources, this number decreased as the debt level went up, indicating that those in most need of help aren’t receiving it.  

One bright spot was the government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which received high marks from those with a desire to serve the public and their communities. Seventy percent of those pursuing PSLF said the program allowed them to work in their chosen profession (just under 20% of total borrowers said they were pursuing PSLF).  

Recommendations for tackling law school debt   

The authors put forth the following recommendations for tackling law school debt: 

  • Expand access to, and awareness of, free financial and mental health resources for recent law graduates and early career attorneys. 
  • Continue to lead, sponsor, and support initiatives that holistically foster financial wellness and professional development of young lawyers. 
  • Improve PSLF to provide a more transparent and seamless process for those seeking to maintain eligibility. 
  • Reform federal student aid programs to make loan repayment more manageable for borrowers. 
  • Make it easier for borrowers to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy. 
  • Improve financial literacy and awareness of the legal job market and the cost of law school attendance among pre-law and current law students. 
  • Improve consumer information available to pre-law students. 
  • Advocate for bar exam preparation expenses to be eligible for federal student loans.

Read the full report here: Student Debt: The Holistic Impact on Today’s Young Lawyer

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