Paying for Law School

Law Student Loan Indebtedness and Career Choices

Student loan debt has reached crisis levels, topping $1.64 trillion dollars this year and surpassing credit card debt to become the second largest source of debt held by Americans. When discussing student loan debt, it is easy to fixate on the aggregate impact of the burdens this debt places on taxpayers, the economy, and borrowers alike, such as the depressive effects that student loan debt has on marriage, homeownership, and entrepreneurship. Yet, a discussion of which graduates are saddled with the largest student loans and how their debt obligations impacts their career choices is often absent from conversations about student debt and has been understudied to date. This Article contributes to the discourse about student loan debt and its potentially negative externalities by investigating responses from an original survey administered at four law schools, revealing novel findings about law students’ expected debt loads, career choices, and intentions to participate in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

In Part II of this Article, the student loan crisis is more closely examined with particular emphasis on its salience for law school graduates. In addition, the first part of this Article provides credible descriptive evidence that rates and amounts of borrowing to attend law school impact law students differentially on the basis of their endowed characteristics, such as race and parental education. Next, Part III explores the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, describing the program’s creation and implementation, in addition to evaluating its efficacy and the direct and indirect costs of its administration. Part IV discusses two pervasive issues within the legal academy with significant social implications—the access-to-justice gap and the public-interest drift—against the backdrop of the student loan crisis and the possible answers that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program could provide in addressing these issues. Part V describes the data collected from the original survey, the methods used to analyze these data, and reports and discusses the results. The findings reported in Part V offer insight into how a law student’s endowed and acquired traits influence their career intentions and provide evidence of the causal relationship between loan debt and career choice and intentions to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Finally, this Article concludes by suggesting that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program presents the best available option to address problems stemming from the access-to-justice gap and the public-interest drift, while also offsetting the negative effects of structural stratification in legal education.

a Associate Professor of Law, Roger Williams University School of Law; Affiliated Scholar, American Bar Foundation. Ph.D., Vanderbilt University; J.D., University of Kentucky; M.Ed., University of Notre Dame; A.B. Dartmouth College. I would like to thank the American Bar Foundation, the AccessLex Institute, and Vanderbilt University for supporting this research. I am also grateful to the law schools and the law students who participated in the Law School Choice Survey, which made this article possible. Thanks also to Meera Deo and Ryan Christensen (both of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement) for allowing me to use their data in writing this Article, and to Matt Bruckner (Howard University School of Law), Cassie Christopher (Texas Tech University School of Law), and Jerry Organ (University of St. Thomas School of Law), whose commentary on this Article were invaluable. Thanks are also due to the members of the AALS Section on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession, whose engagement and opportunity to present this research were sincerely welcomed. Finally, I would like to thank Blaine Payer and Sophia Weaver, whose diligent research assistance immeasurably benefitted me in writing this Article.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.