ABA survey reveals the extent and ill effects of law student debt

A new study conducted by the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division reveals substantial and widespread levels of student debt and its effects on the newest members of the U.S. legal profession.

Posted online (www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/student-loans), the 2020 Law School Student Debt Survey Report shows that among new and young lawyers surveyed recently:

  • More than 75% of respondents had at least $100,000 in student loans at graduation
  • Over half had more than $150,000 in student loans
  • More than 1 in 4 has $200,000 or more in student loans
  • More than 1,000 newer lawyers and recent law school graduates completed the survey, which was conducted March 1-31, 2020. The data was analyzed by AccessLex Institute.

The survey data reveal six key themes:

  • All law school graduates are impacted by student loan debt, with few exceptions
  • For many, law school debt grows after graduation
  • Student loans deeply impact personal lives and decisions of new lawyers
  • Student loans force lawyers to take unwanted career paths
  • Student loans take a disproportionate toll on lawyers of color
  • Student loans are negatively affecting mental health

Among the unintended consequences of substantial student debt were deeply personal decisions such as the ability to start a family – about half of respondents chose to postpone or not have children at all; a quarter postponed getting married. Debt also affects new lawyers’ ability to make purchasing decisions that contribute to the economy – more than 50% decided to postpone or chose not to take a vacation, buy a house or buy a car.

About 1 in 3 respondents said they chose a career path different from what they initially expected because of loans. More than 37% said they chose a job that pays more money “instead of a job I really wanted.” About 17% said the same about choosing a job that qualifies for loan forgiveness.

“This survey report reminds us not only of the scope, scale and incessant growth of the legal profession’s student loan problems, but it highlights debt’s personal and mental toll – especially in communities of color,” said ABA President Patricia Lee Refo. “We’ve allowed debt to become a prerequisite to practice law, and we must do better.”

The report calls for steps that address the legal profession’s student loan crisis, including supporting viable efforts to ease the student loan burden, considering alternative loan servicing models, exploring the impact of debt on career trajectory and job satisfaction, and exploring the impact of debt on mental health.