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Law Student Debt: Our Profession’s Compounding Crisis

Austin Groothuis

Law Student Debt: Our Profession’s Compounding Crisis

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At the beginning of March 2020, the ABA Young Lawyers Division opened a student loan survey to young lawyers across the country.

By the time we’d closed survey responses at the end of the month, a global pandemic was in full swing, and law school was abruptly forced online. Bar exams were then mishandled and delayed; job offers were rescinded. There was economic fallout, racial unrest, and an anxiety-inducing national election.

As 2020 was happening, we reviewed the results that would be the basis of the ABA Young Lawyers Division Law School Loan Debt Survey. And like 2020, they were, frankly, a bit grim.

The Student Loan Survey Says…

I urge you to download and read the full 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report at Here’s what it all could mean for you, as a soon-to-be lawyer—especially if we don’t take proactive steps to address our profession’s student loan problem.

You’ll almost surely be dealing with debt for a long time

More than 95 percent of our respondents took out loans to attend law school. More than 80 percent of our respondents graduated with $95,000+ in debt. More than half had $160,000 or more.

What’s more, more than 40 percent of our respondents saw an increase in their loan balance in the years since graduation. An increasing balance early in their career is an indicator that many lawyers will be saddled with debt for years to come.

Any way you slice it, almost no one who intends to enter this profession escapes law school without debt. Mortgage-sized debt is not uncommon. Debt has essentially become a prerequisite to practice.

Loans will probably delay your personal life decisions

You’re likely to feel very personal impacts because of loans. We asked: “Which of these ways, if any, has your total student loan debt affected your life?”

About every other lawyer postponed having kids or didn’t have any at all because of loans. And if half of our new lawyers are putting their money into paying down loans, rather than houses or cars, imagine the aggregate economic impact.

Even answers with lower response rates aren’t, in fact, low. Because of loans, more than one of every four new lawyers postponed marriage or didn’t get married. This is all on top of the built-in delay for many because a JD is a three-year graduate program or a four-year program for nontraditional students.

You might take a job you don’t want because of loans

Certain practice settings showed higher response rates for questions about career trajectory. These results, and open-ended feedback, showed that many law grads feel their debt has trapped them in jobs that qualify for loan forgiveness or jobs with higher salaries.

If you’re a person of color, loans likely impact you more

Loans are likely having a greater effect on you if you’re a person of color. It’s not a shock that a systemic problem like student loans disproportionately affects people of color. But it’s worth noting that the student loan problem is another factor exacerbating the profession’s diversity problems.

When we talk about the student loan debt issue, we’re talking about an issue of diversity, equality, and inclusion.

For instance, 33–40 percent of all non-White respondents had more than $200,000 in student loans at graduation compared to about 25 percent of White respondents. This is just one of several examples in the report.

Student loans could affect your happiness and mental well-being

This one was unexpected. And with the backdrop of the Spring of 2020, it really got to me. We didn’t ask recipients directly about the psychological impact of loans. In that question with 10 set personal and job-related answers, we included one “other” checkbox, with an optional open response.

As we reviewed this qualitative data, a clear pattern emerged despite the results being unprompted—one of stress, anxiety, mental unwellness, and even depression. We have no charts or graphics here because the reports were all qualitative. But here are a few of those responses:

  • “After student loans and caring for my sickly parents, I have very little to have of my own. This means I’m forever beholden to law firm work and feel like I’ll never be able to afford a home or have a family of my own. It’s too expensive. Additionally, there’s anxiety that comes with financial stress. For first-generation immigrants like myself, caring for extended family in a multigenerational household is challenging.”
  • “Mental health has declined.”
  • “My monthly payments add to my stress.”
  • “I lie awake at night worried about whether I’ll be able to give my children the life my parents gave me and whether I’ll ever know the feeling of true financial stability, which is what I was seeking when I went to law school.”
  • “Sleepless nights.”

Our Takeaway?

Something needs to change. Part of the frustration for me, personally, is that we’ve, collectively, been talking about loans as a problem in the profession since I can remember. But outside of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which only a fraction of you will qualify for, there hasn’t been much progress. The new YLD report mentions a 2003 ABA report on student loans that cited $80,000 as if it were a shocking amount of student debt with which to be saddled.

You wish, right?

It was complete dumb luck that I found a job halfway through law school that offered me full tuition reimbursement. I still graduated from law school in 2007 with more than six figures in debt. Even graduating more than a decade ago with half the debt I should have, paying back loans felt unmanageable at times over these last 13 years for me. It often made me question my choices.

Since then, loan balances have grown at higher rates than inflation and wages. I can’t imagine what it’s like for today’s graduates saddled with three or four years of law school costs.

And worse yet, as we continue to chip away at overt barriers to participation in law school and the profession, we’ve created new, steep, ballooning financial ones. So those with less access to wealth, credit, and financial scholarships have no choice but to take on huge sums of debt at much greater risk.

Overall, after reviewing these results, it occurred to me: all of our respondents graduated after the 2008 economic crisis but before the 2020 crisis. The "lucky" ones. This survey represents how student loans affected a generation of lawyers who graduated into a good, at times booming, economy. Where does that leave subsequent classes? Where does that leave you?

So What Can You Do?

I believe we’re beyond some condescending “cut back on daily lattes” advice column. There are plenty of practical financial advice articles out there, and we have a lot of them at the ABA. I’m not saying you should ignore that type of advice or that you should be careless with your finances. But given the systemic nature of the problem, one could argue those types of articles are tacit victim-blaming at this point. If nothing else, this survey shows this isn’t a story of a few students being careless with money.

Long-term debt is inescapable for most people who want to be a lawyer today. It’s a barrier to entry into the profession and a threat to its stability. We need systemic change for a systemic problem. Here are a few ideas to start working toward that:

Destigmatize debt

Much like a mental health stigma, there’s a financial stigma. Start sharing your stories about student loan debt. Start raising awareness of this issue with older and experienced colleagues. Chances are, a lot of you have relatives who are lawyers. Speaking up can be hard. But let them know it’s not the same as when they went to school. Maybe share the new report with them.

Stay informed about national policy on student loans

Student loan policy is, by and large, controlled at the federal level. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have shown an openness to addressing federal loan policy in ways that were unthinkable before. Legislation and executive action in response to the pandemic gave federal student loan holders zero interest and no payments due for an extended period of time. Start learning about feasible loan policies, and let politicians who support those policies know that you support them.

Track efforts to reduce student tuition costs

Of course, the root of this problem is the cost of a three- or four-year postgraduate degree. Organizations like Law School Transparency are working toward solutions that will help make law school more affordable. In the end, you’re the consumer of law school. You have more power than you think. Educate yourself, organize, and speak up collectively about your concerns.

Get involved and organize through bar associations

There are groups out there designed to represent your interests, believe it or not. They’re called bar associations. But they want you to become involved. They, in fact, need you to survive. And the reason it feels like they don’t represent you is that many of you aren’t joining at the level of previous generations. Join the ABA, your state bar association, and your specialty bar association. Look to its law student and young lawyers groups, and start organizing on this issue.

Support diversity efforts in the profession

Our survey reiterated that the student loan crisis hits communities of color much harder. This is in addition to countless underlying issues, such as a lack of representation in prominent positions across the profession and relatively slower career advancement. Many organizations, including the ABA Diversity and Inclusion Center, do excellent work on diversity, equity, and inclusion. And there are efforts to hold law firms accountable in tangible ways, such as the Mansfield Rule. Support these efforts.

Take care of your mental well-being

With the connection to finances, this is another plug for wellness. Check with your state’s lawyer assistance program. In the Law Student Division, we have a comprehensive Mental Health Toolkit.

Let’s Talk about Debt

We need lawyers. The law is a noble profession filled with opportunities to do good and to make a positive societal impact. But we can’t deny certain underlying issues. There’s a continuing struggle with a lack of diversity and representation. There are remarkably high rates of mental health issues and substance use. There exist bifurcated salary disparities between BigLaw and everyone else.

Access to the legal profession is severely limited if those who wish to enter it are forced to take on extreme debt. Burdensome debt is a barrier to entry we’ve seemingly grown comfortable with, yet it tells us nothing about an aspiring lawyer’s merit or qualification.

What’s often left unsaid is how the student loan debt crisis takes each of these systemic issues and ratchets them up. Student loans are compounding in every sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be like this. For the sake of an entire generation of attorneys, let’s find the will to speak up, speak out, and take action to make it better.