Public Interest Lawyers Deserve Debt Relief

Joe Biden announced his student loan forgiveness plan and there is some good news for public interest students and lawyers. Earlier reporting suggested that Biden might exclude law school and medical school debt, which possibly made sense from a politics standpoint but would have been terrible policy. Because of the $125K income cap, the people with law school debt most likely to qualify under the program are those who went to law school but are not practicing law and public interest lawyers, both of which deserve debt relief.

The first group is undeniably in need of help. Not everyone who goes to law school becomes a lawyer. In 2020, only 72% of law graduates were able to secure a job that required a law degree ten months after graduation. One study found that twenty percent of 2010 law school graduates were still working in non-legal jobs five years later. At some schools, the percentage of graduates who snag legal jobs is lower still. Some of the lowest ranked law schools have bar passage rates below sixty percent.

Moreover, certain groups are disproportionately likely to fail the bar examination. Only 79% of black bar applicants have passed the bar examination two years after graduation, as opposed to 93% of white applicants. These statistics do not even take into account students who drop-out before getting their degree. More than 9 in 10 law students at unaccredited California schools drop out before graduation. Nationwide, the attrition rate is seven percent. In other words, many people with law school debt are not lawyers and never will be.

Public interest lawyers also deserve debt relief. Lawyers working at public interest organizations have an average starting salary of $63,000 and it is rare for them to make more than $125,000. Yet they often have the same debt burden as firm lawyers making upwards of $200,000 their first year out of law school. Despite that salary differential, many law students would prefer to take public interest jobs. High student loan payments can make that choice untenable.

We should reward people who choose lower-paid, socially-valuable jobs, not penalize them. Excluding public interest lawyers from debt relief would have sent a signal that they chose wrong and that they should have either taken a corporate job or forgone law school altogether. There was no suggestion that Biden exclude other people who chose poorly-compensated but important occupations such as social work or teaching. The same logic applies to public interest lawyers.

At the end of the day, $10K is unlikely to be transformative for most public interest lawyers given that the average law school debt is in the six digits, but it is something.

How Much Debt Is Too Much Debt?

If you follow law twitter, you may have seen the recent news: Columbia recently became the first law school to pass the $110,000 mark for tuition and living expenses per year. That means that a student who does not get any financial aid could leave law school with almost $400,000 in loans (when you take into account interest accrued during law school). Most students won’t pay the sticker price, but even so this is a ridiculous amount of money, especially for students wanting to do public interest law. Unless your school has an excellent loan forgiveness program, you will be paying back your loans for a very long time. Or you will abandon your public interest dreams and become a corporate lawyer because you are forced to. These are not good outcomes.

That is not to say that public interest students should never take out loans. There are many circumstances in which it makes sense. But you should not take out loans until you calculate what your monthly payment will be, what loan repayment options you will have, and how much you are likely to earn. If the numbers don’t add up, you need another plan. That plan might be waiting another admission cycle and retaking the LSAT so that you can compete for merit scholarships, going to a lower-ranked school that offers you financial aid, or avoiding law school altogether. The time to consider these options is before you enroll, not when your first bill arrives six months after you graduate.

There needs to be a revolution in law school financing. The current system is broken. The average debt burden has doubled in the last 20 years and is still growing. It is unsustainable, particularly for public interest students who could never count on high salaries. Your job as a law school applicant is not to get crushed by the system. I think that being a public interest lawyer is one of the best jobs in the world, but no job is worth $400,000 in debt. If that’s your only option, you should think seriously about whether law school is right for you.