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After the Bar

Personal & Financial

The Student Loan Debt Fire Burning Around Us

Christopher Steven Jennison


  • The student debt problem is disproportionately impacting new lawyers, exacerbated by rising rents and stagnant salaries. A 2020 ABA survey revealed that 95 percent of law school graduates borrowed money, with average debt exceeding $150,000.
  • Despite the allure of high-paying Big Law jobs, most new lawyers enter lower-paying public sector roles. The increasing cost of law school tuition has outpaced even Big Law salaries.
  • Student debt has hindered careers and personal lives for over 80 percent of borrowers, delaying major life milestones.
  • The ABA, through studies and resolutions, is addressing the issue, advocating for student loan forbearance, reform, and discharge options.
The Student Loan Debt Fire Burning Around Us
PeopleImages via iStock

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As young lawyers, I imagine you are well aware of this meme: a dog sitting and drinking a cup of coffee while the room burns around him, saying, “This is fine.” The capture from Gunsmoke evokes a sense of self-denial or acceptance in the face of a hopeless situation.

Student debt feels a bit like that. I’m here to tell you some relief is on the way, and with a plan and advocacy from the American Bar Association, this can be fine.

What the Student Debt Problem Looks Like

While as a lawyer, in your first few years of lawyering, you’re likely working long hours to prove yourself and learn the nuances of your practice or learning how to work with clients, skills that were likely not taught to you in law school. You’re likely crunched by the rental market in your area, especially as rents have risen dramatically during the pandemic—11.3 percent by some counts. Throw student debt into the mix, and it can feel like the room is on fire.

As you may have read before, a 2020 ABA survey found the average debt for law school graduates has increased to more than $150,000. This average isn’t an abstract number affecting only a few who take out loans to finance their degrees; the survey found that 95 percent of respondents borrowed money for their JD degrees. While working at Big Law is often touted in law school as the ultimate goal, most new lawyers work at lower-paying public sector jobs—at nonprofits serving disadvantaged individuals; in prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices; and at local, state, and federal government agencies. A well-known “bimodal” salary curve is put out by the National Association for Law Placement each year, showing that only a small segment of new lawyers are working in big law, making $190,000 or more.

Law School Cost vs. Big Law Salary

The assumption is that those who land a Big Law job are well-equipped to handle the high costs of tuition they’ve incurred. However, that assumption is blown apart when you consider how little the Big Law salary has kept up with the cost of legal education over the years. The following animated graphic shows the inflation-adjusted increases in both the average US law school tuition fees and the average starting salary in a large law firm.

As you can see, even the high salaries of Big Law can’t keep up with the tuition law schools are charging and the associated debt that new lawyers are taking on.

Law School Cost vs. Home Prices

Debt also isn’t just an abstract dollar amount; it has real-world implications. Of those 95 percent of graduates who borrowed, our study showed that more than 80 percent indicated student debt had disrupted the trajectory of their career or personal life, causing them to weigh salary more heavily in their job selection or put off home purchases, marriage, children, or vacations.

Let’s take a closer look at home purchases. Homeownership is often considered a marker of success, with one recent study showing that nearly two-in-three respondents rated the importance of homeownership to define their personal success at an eight or higher on a scale of 1–10. Another survey found that 74 percent of people in the United States say owning a home is a higher measure of achievement than having a successful career, raising a family, or earning a college degree.

House prices have increased 81.5 percent in the United States over the last decade, so it may be fair to think putting the cost of home ownership next to law school tuition over the last 35 years would look similar to the increase in law school tuition over the same time. However, the animated graphic below, showing the inflation-adjusted increases in both the average US law school tuition fees and the average sale price of houses sold in the United States, demonstrates that law school tuition increases still blow away housing increases. 

It’s easy to see how a young lawyer grappling with staggering debt would delay buying a home.

The ABA Is Taking Action

With the ABA being the largest voluntary bar association of lawyers in the world, you may be wondering how the ABA is giving voice to your understandable concerns about the scope of student debt. The ABA Young Lawyers Division, and the ABA’s Government Affairs Office, have been busy at work fighting for you. Here are a few steps the ABA has taken in light of the scope of the problem outlined above:

  • In 2020, the ABA conducted the study I mentioned above, in conjunction with AccessLex, to help illustrate the scope of the student debt crisis for policymakers, bar leaders, and employers, so they can better understand the reality for young lawyers.
  • In 2020, the YLD fought for the adoption of ABA Resolution 10D, which called for an extending forbearance of federally held student loans. That forbearance is currently scheduled to end on September 1, 2022, though rumors are that it will be extended for a few months- stay tuned to After the Bar for news.
  • In 2021, the YLD drafted and advocated for Resolution 106C, which called for expanding federal repayment to those who had private loans, allowing refinancing federal loans to later more favorable rates, expanding eligibility for loans, and authorizing suspension or forgiveness of student loan obligations. We know that student loans are a confusing and dense reality even for lawyers, and this resolution advocated making student loans easier to understand and manage for all loan holders.
  • Though no one wants to declare bankruptcy, the current bankruptcy code doesn’t practically allow student loan discharge. Resolution 512, brought by the YLD in 2021, urged Congress to amend the US Bankruptcy code to permit student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy without needing to prove undue hardship.
  • And in 2021, the ABA again partnered with AccessLex to examine further the collateral effects of student debt. We found that 65 percent of respondents reported overwhelming stress because of mounting debt.

This is just a small snapshot of the work that the ABA is doing on your behalf, giving face and voice to the massive student debt problem.

Additional Resources in Student Loans and Finances