The Cost of Legal Education and Unintended Consequences

Over the past few days, in our series on legal education and the idea of law school as a product, we’ve been examining legal education through the lens of product liability law.  We’ve discussed whether legal education is defectively designed, examined warnings that might be appropriate, debated the risk/benefit analysis of the cost of legal education, and explored potential remedies.

We want to explore another issue with you: the concept of unintended consequences.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog featured a story about Yale Law School’s loan forgiveness program.  Before the recession, the program subsidized student loans, in full, for those graduates earning less than $60,000 per year in public sector jobs.  For those earning a larger salary, the graduate bore some burden, but the loans were still heavily subsidized.  Going forward, however, “due to more conservative budget projections as a result of the recession,” the program will only fully subsidize loans for those earning less than $50,000, and expect varying [read: additional] contributions on a sliding scale for those earning more.  As the article points out, several law schools have similar loan forgiveness programs.

What does this all mean?  As we discussed in prior posts, the cost of a legal education continues to rise, and increasingly, students are turning to loans to bridge the gap between what they can pay and what schools charge for tuition.  As tuition increases, the ability of students to repay the loans decreases, especially for those students who want to pursue careers with legal aid or other similar agencies or the government.

On top of that, schools may start to re-examine their loan forgiveness programs, as Yale has done, and they may not be able to be quite as generous as they once were.  The result may be a public sector in dire need of well-educated, experienced lawyers, with no pool of candidates to choose from because they can’t afford to work for such low salaries.

If you take this analysis to its most cynical end, then we wind up with a legal system in which access to legal representation is limited to those who can pay the lawyers who have to earn large salaries to pay back their student debt.  Follow me?  It’s a depressing prediction, but we are left with the enduring fact that lawyers who may owe Access Group or Sallie Mae close to $100,000, we can’t fulfill the Atticus Finch fantasy of working for vegetables.