You’d have to be living under a rock to not be aware of the fact that the average law student graduates with a high amount of debt. Lots of people have been talking about this debt load and whether law school tuition is worth the high price tag. Most say the debt is too high, particularly in light of the bleak employment opportunities for new lawyers over the last several years. The issue has ramifications far beyond the new lawyers struggling to make their payments each month, however. It is a complex issue with ramifications affecting the entire profession and the public.
Under the leadership of ISBA President John Theis, a Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services conducted statewide hearings and research that culminated in a Final Report that was unanimously adopted by the ISBA General Assembly last Saturday. Listening to co-chair Justice Ann Jorgenson’s remarks to the General Assembly and reading the Report, I became overcome by the realization: We are all carrying this debt, whether financial or otherwise.
The Report contains an Executive Summary that, at a minimum, should be required reading for every lawyer. The average student graduates from law school with over $100,000 of law school debt and, adding interest, undergraduate debt and bar study loans, the debt burden frequently increases to $150,000 to $200,000. The Report documents widespread effects of this law school debt, including: small firms are unable to attract and retain new lawyers; attorneys with excessive debt are less able to take legal aid or government jobs or serve the needs of low or moderate income clients; more new attorneys enter solo practice with few skills and little support; financial pressures make it less likely that attorneys will engage in pro bono services; high debt drives attorneys away from rural areas and may drive minorities away from the profession, resulting in a less diverse profession. Our profession is being indelibly changed; our society is being changed too.
What makes this Report different is instead of identifying, lamenting and backing away from the Gordian Knot of a problem, the Committee goes on to make creative and bold recommendations to ameliorate the debt crisis and to transform legal education to focus on educating lawyers for practice at an affordable price. The suggestions include changes to federal laws governing student loans, to the ABA accreditation standards, to law school curriculum and faculty, to the Illinois and other Supreme Courts and to the organized bar.
This is a call to action for all of us. Read the Report. Reach out and get involved in the solutions.