Law School: On Student Loan Debt, and On Repayment
By Ken K. Gourdin
On a thread at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion where the topic of student loan debt was brought up, I responded as follows:
There’s no relation between cost and worth when it comes to degrees, particularly when it comes to graduate degrees (depending on the field, of course, but generally speaking). Schools continue to build pretty buildings and to add other bells and whistles. Where’s the money gonna come from to pay for that? No prob … if all else fails, the schools just jack up tuition. Where’s the money gonna come from to pay higher tuition? Oh, yeah, that’s right: The schools don’t have to worry about that. Only the students do. A few years ago, I got a solicitation for funds from the Dean at one of my alma maters. In response, I wrote him a letter describing my economic situation (it’s a little different now than it was then, but not by much: The more things change, the more they stay the same) along with a brief sketch of my sordid history, and told him that, while I wished him well in his quest for funding, before I could contribute, I would have to get my degree to pay off for me before I could get it to pay off for anyone else. There’s a new Dean. if-and-when he solicits me for funds, he’s going to get a similar letter.
When another poster responded to the above, I responded to him:
Well and good. Fortunately, I don’t have nearly the student loan debt that you do. Unfortunately (as I have noted several times previously on the Board), while my current employer has treated me far better than I could have hoped, my employer’s good treatment doesn’t change the fact that I now have completed a very large circle, and am now back doing the same type of job at almost the same rate of pay that I left more than 20 years ago and eventually decided to seek the degree in hopes of escaping. I barely have enough to pay expenses. The only way I’ve been able to pay my student loans is to go on Income-Based Repayment.
In general and in principle, I agree with your first sentence. However, it’s not that simple, not in all cases. I, too, did most all of that as an undergrad, and I also graduated with no student loan debt as an undergrad. Law school, however, is a different animal. Standards of the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools and whose accreditation is close to a sin qua non for practicing law (one can receive a law degree from a non-ABA accredited institution, then is limited, provided s/he can pass the Bar in the state where the law school is located, to practicing law in that state) preclude first-year law students from having outside employment.Yes, I have paid every single cent due on my student loans since they entered repayment. That said, for nearly ten of those years, I did so while living below the poverty line (albeit with a good deal of family help when it came to paying other expenses). Yes, it is very likely I will continue to pay every single cent due until they are repaid in full. However, I received the degree with the expectation (or at least the hope) of a corresponding increase in income which would make repaying them easier, and that, as yet, has not materialized. I have come full-circle, and am back doing the same kind of work at nearly the same rate of pay that I left when I decided to pursue that degree. There are many things I don’t know. However, while I may never escape answering phones all day every day even with the degree, it’s a virtual certainty that I would not escape such a fate if I hadn’t gotten the degree.
The same poster who wrote, “You took on the debt, you pay it” ridiculed my alleged appeal for sympathy for lawyers. I replied:
I’m not sure what I’ve written, so far, that has led you to believe I expect sympathy from you or from anyone else. I simply responded to your assertion that anyone who incurs a debt should be held liable for paying that debt regardless of the debtor’s circumstances by pointing out that, often, it isn’t that simple. Your professed lack of sympathy for lawyers puts you in good company, though I hope you don’t suffer from claustrophobia or from agoraphobia, because, even as big as that room might be, it’s hardly a limitless space. Strictly speaking, I neither asked nor expected you to have any sympathy for lawyers. There are some complexities of the problem (both of my personal challenges and for those pursuing legal education generally) that I think you’re missing:
- As I have made abundantly clear on this thread, on this Board, elsewhere in Cyber space, and in face-to-face interactions with others, I’m not a lawyer; should I ever achieve my desired outcome of working in the legal profession in some capacity, for all you know, perhaps my own attitude toward lawyers would parallel that of the inimitable Erin Brockovich, who, in an effort to build rapport with a potential client when her interlocutor asked if she was a lawyer, reportedly responded, “I hate lawyers. I just work for ’em.”
- While I have not addressed the inefficiencies in the systems of legal education and of legal practice generally because they are beyond the scope of this particular dialogue, such inefficiencies do, indeed, exist, and they are a source of frustration not only to people such as yourself who distrust the legal system and those who operate in it, they are also a source of frustration to the people who actually are part of the system, attorneys included. While one may, for example, wish to go into public interest law by taking a job serving populations who are underserved (or who are ill-served) by the legal system, our would-be public interest lawyer may believe he is unable to do so because such a position will not allow him to pay back the considerable debt he has incurred in the course of pursuing his legal education. (And remember, defraying legal education costs isn’t not necessarily as simple as saying, “Get a job,” since ABA accreditation standards forbid 1Ls from securing outside employment, and working while in law school is challenging even if one has advanced beyond the 1L year.)
- It seems rather facile to say, in essence, that “Lawyers are the problem; therefore, a world with fewer lawyers would, ipso facto, be a better world.” As I pointed out in #2, as much as one might have a genuine desire to work where he is likely to make the greatest difference to the people who need it most, other factors may make it difficult (if not impossible) for him to do so. I can argue just as effectively (if not more so) that, in fact, the problem isn’t that there are too many lawyers, but, rather, that there are not enough lawyers where they are most neeeded. Various factors have conspired needlessly to drive up the cost of legal education, and, thus, to reduce access to needed legal services, including such things as law schools’ fetish for having all the bells and whistles, the ABA’s ability to withhold accreditation from schools which lack certain bells and whistles, and so on.
- While you may lack sympathy for “Kenngo1969 [my screen name], aspiring attorney,” or for “Kenngo1969, aspiring legal support professional” (and rightly so, according to most all of the people in that very crowded room to which I alluded in #2) perhaps you ought to consider whether it is consistent with the Christian ethic for you to lack sympathy for a brother in Christ or for a fellow mortal traveller, no matter how responsible you believe he is for his own plight. King Benjamin warned against that very attitude. (See Mosiah 4:17-18.) While he warned against having that attitude specifically toward the poor, I believe that principle is more widely applicable to a variety of circumstances in which people might find themselves in which, arguably, they have “made their own bed.” Even if, in many cases, that is true, who among us has made the wisest possible choices in every circumstance in which we have found ourselves?
Long story short? Again, I think that neither the problem nor your proposed “solution” are as simple as you’re trying to make them out to be.