Deluged by Debt

As Brian Tamanaha writes at Balkinization, law school debt levels continue their relentless climb. The latest figures from US News show that, among 2012 graduates, the average amount borrowed for law school exceeded $150,000 at six law schools. Only one of those schools (Northwestern) ranks among the top fifteen law schools; one other (American) ranks 56th. The other four (Thomas Jefferson, California Western, Phoenix, and New York Law School) lie in the unranked fourth tier.

As Brian’s post shows, the job outcomes at five of these schools (all but Northwestern) are dismal. Less than 40% of the students at these schools obtained full-time jobs that required bar admission and would last at least one year. Even at Northwestern, only 77% of the class met that mark. How can all of the graduates with part-time, temporary, or non-lawyering jobs possibly pay off more than $150,000 in debt–plus all of the accrued interest on that debt? What calculations can justify attending most law schools at that debt-to-outcome ratio?

The problem, of course, reaches far beyond these six schools. They are at the top of the debt ladder, but most other law schools are close behind. 123 law schools, well over half of the 193 listed schools, reported average amounts borrowed that exceeded $100,000. Even Irvine law school’s first graduates, who paid no tuition for their three years of law school, reported debt. More than two-thirds (68%) of Irvine’s initial class incurred debt, borrowing an average of $49,602 for their “free” law school ride. Remarkably, that figure gave Irvine the second lowest average debt load among the 193 law schools.

When students borrow almost $50,000 to attend law school, even without paying tuition, we have to re-think the way we structure legal education.