More work to be done
Despite the challenges, Wolf and others believe there are opportunities for improvement. State and local bar associations—and perhaps especially metro bars—can play pivotal roles in education, advocacy and hiring, they say. It can start, Wolf says, in the networking that often occurs at the bar.
“Lawyers like to hire alums from their law schools, and if you go to a good regional law school, you probably have just as much of a hiring advantage as you do going to a T14 school,” Wolf says. “I hope students are recognizing that there are opportunities for them there that are probably better than a lot of the Harvards and Yales of the world.”
Bauer hopes that Wisconsin—followed by more states—can build off several of the recommendations from her task force: in particular, the creation of a borrower’s “Bill of Rights” and a statewide ombudsman to represent student loan recipients.
“I talk to young lawyers about repayment options, and so many of them are not aware of what their payment options even are,” Bauer says. “Creating these state-based offices will definitely help.”
Wichita’s Rupert agrees, adding that making prelaw students more aware of the pitfalls of borrowing should be a priority for bars looking to better inform prospective students.
“I wish somebody could have walked me through the economics of law school,” says Rupert, a first-generation law student. “I don’t know if I would have made the same decisions. I feel like I was just flying blind. In a perfect world, I could have made a lot better decisions.”
Ultimately, Heath says, the widespread issue of student debt will likely require greater involvement from the ABA and other organizations.
“There needs to be some calling together of the stakeholders in the profession about what to do about this problem,” he says. “The business model seems to be broken. It’s not broken for [law schools], but I think it’s broken for society and I’m afraid it’s broken for our profession. We need more reports, like ours and the ABA, to gather not just anecdotal evidence, and to get more people talking.”
To that end, Brown says, the ABA YLD is planning to introduce two measures in the ABA House of Delegates to encourage the ABA to lobby for changes in bankruptcy law that would more easily allow for student loans to be dischargeable via undue hardship—in addition to supporting any loan forgiveness programs that may emerge from Washington in the year ahead.
Those seeking a model for what bar organizations can proactively do about the debt problem might also keep an eye on the Chicago Bar Foundation, which has been working not only to support PSLF, but also to promote legislation that could bring dramatic improvements for those carrying law school debt, as well as any other student loan debt related to higher education.
The proposed Equality in Higher Education Financing and Repayment Act (EHEFRA) is “a comprehensive effort to fairly and equitably tackle the unsustainable levels of student loan debt that are exacerbating existing inequalities in education access and opportunity as well as inhibiting entrepreneurship,” according to information from the CBF. “The EHEFRA would create a more rational, fair, and accountable system, freeing many Americans from the weight of debt-based decision-making and simultaneously giving the economy a much-needed stimulus during the current financial crisis.”
In the short term, the EHEFRA focuses on providing all borrowers with a one-time opportunity to refinance both public and private student loan debt at lower and more sustainable rates, because of today’s near-zero interest rates. In the long term, this act would create one multi-tiered, income-based repayment program to provide simpler options for borrowers. It also addresses a number of other reforms to encourage employer assistance with student loan repayment, improve borrower education, and increase accountability for all parties. In a recent informational session via Zoom, CBF staff members and the team that helped draft the EHEFRA noted that this proposal differs from many others in that it covers how to support prospective students before they incur debt, rather than focusing just on the back end via loan forgiveness, and that it addresses debt from both undergraduate and graduate studies (such as law school).
Bauer says she just doesn’t want future generations of lawyers to have the somewhat paradoxical emotions she felt after her the balance of her loans were forgiven.
“It was one of the biggest moments of my career,” she says of the day her loans zeroed out. “It wasn’t me practicing law. It was me getting rid of my debt.”