One of our priorities this year has been to improve our effort at reaching out to law students. While our law school leadership is very supportive of the bar, many in the law school faculties (though thankfully not all) are disconnected from our bar. If we don’t play an active role in trying to connect with law students, I am afraid they are less likely to develop any appreciation for the value of the bar association. I am pleased to report we are making progress on this front. Of course, it helps that we make membership free for our law students. The real crunch time will come when the new recruits move beyond the first year of practice and are asked to pay member dues like the rest of us.
Challenges of Law School
One of the things you learn about today’s law students is that they face challenges unlike those of most of our members, who graduated some time ago. Given the challenge of law school debt, I am proud of the fact we can offer them something free, even if it is for a short time. Part of what the MSBA is all about is supporting our fellow professionals. We are a community. Our law students are part of that, and whether they know it or not, they could use our help. We need to make them feel welcomed.
In support of this initiative, I have been paying a bit closer attention to the current environment and reading up about the needs and challenges of law students. I am sorry to say that the more I read, the more I am disheartened. While many of the problems are well known, they bear some repeating. Although there has been some improvement in the employment picture since the depths of the Great Recession, things have not returned to the pre-2008 normal. There are lingering problems. The economic prospects for a law school degree have remained tepid. For instance, the nationwide unemployment rate nine months after law school graduation has dropped from 34 percent for the class of 2012 to 29 percent for the class of 2014. Hardly a resurgence of note. Despite this, the cost of education has continued to rise and the lack of public support, whether through subsidy of public law schools or support of reasonable federal loan rates, has placed an enormous, non-dischargeable burden on law graduates.
Only about 14 percent of law students are able to complete their higher education without availing themselves of student loans. Among the vast majority who do borrow, the median debt load is over $140,000. About $120,000 of that is attributable to law school alone. Educational loans in America now surpass the combined debt incurred for automobiles and credit cards, according to a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The questionable justification for this public policy seems to stem from a misconception that a legal education is merely about conferring a private economic advantage, and that lawyers “can afford it.” In one Minnesota law school, fully half of graduates who could find employment in private practice reported salaries in the $50,000 to $76,000 range during 2014. The graduates who landed public service employment reported median salaries of $46,000. These are not salaries that allow much left over to retire school debt if the graduates are also trying to support families.
This policy of education finance creates a perverse situation in which repayment of debt strongly dictates a graduate’s chosen career objective. A student with such large debt simply must try to start a career that will allow them to pay off their debt. Less than 20 percent of graduates are able to go to work in “big law” careers in which they have an expectation off earning at a level that meets the stereotype of lawyers who “can afford it.” The bulk of graduates who find other legal employment are looking at earnings that will require many, many years of work to retire their debt.
Investment in Lawyers
With all due regard for those in “big law,” we don’t need a system of legal education that is designed only with their needs in mind. We don’t need to force all of our law students to pursue big law careers and seek to serve only the needs of big business. We also need them in rural areas. We need them in government. We need them in legal aid. We need them to pursue careers that really provide service to the vast majority of the public who cannot really afford a lawyer.
While our system has always been poor in providing an opportunity for legal advice and representation for most people, the current state of legal education pricing and financing is exacerbating this challenge.
In the time since I attended law school, there has been a sea change in thinking about financing higher education in general. Somehow we have drifted from the notion that higher education is an important public good, and that support of it is a wise investment for all of our futures. I, for one, have always been cognizant of my appreciation for the taxpayers of Minnesota due to their sizeable role in making my college and law education possible. Please note that I say appreciation to the taxpayers, rather than that I am indebted to them. I don’t feel indebted since their investment has allowed me to pursue a career that has enabled me to be a contributing citizen, including as a taxpayer myself who has had the good fortune to return prior taxpayer investment in my education many times over.
Unless our leaders in government and education can do something to turn around the current state of affairs, they will have plenty of law graduates feeling indebted in a different way. I am less optimistic about the ability of today’s graduates to repay today’s much smaller investment of taxpayer support. I am even less optimistic that today’s students will, or should, ever experience the same level of gratitude that I did.
Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.