Thies: Law school debt 'unsustainable' over long term

Thies: Law school debt 'unsustainable' over long term

CHAMPAIGN — Today's law school students, on average, face a debt load of about $100,000 for legal education, the president of the Illinois State Bar Association said.

That figure, John Thies said, doesn't include debt they may have incurred as a result of undergraduate education.

Speaking at the University of Illinois College of Law on Tuesday, Thies told students that their counterparts over the next 10 to 15 years will probably face similar challenges.

But over the long term, that kind of debt for legal education is "unsustainable," given salaries in the profession.

Jobs that pay enough to satisfy the debt payments aren't forthcoming, he said.

"I don't see salaries changing," Thies said. "What's got to change is cost."

Thies, a shareholder in the Urbana law firm of Webber & Thies, said he didn't think law school could very well be cut from three years to two.

But he suggested "significant changes" could be made to the third year to help make students "practice-ready."

Upon becoming president of the state bar association, Thies created a task force to report on what effect law school debt is having on the delivery of legal services in Illinois.

For example, small law firms — those with fewer than 10 employees — may not be able to afford people who have to pay off high law school debt.

The task force scheduled five hearings around the state and heard testimony from 50 witnesses, he said. Now it's drafting a report on what can be done, both short and long term, to make a difference.

One student in the audience reported hearing a story of someone still paying off law school debt from 1993.

Thies said he didn't doubt that. He said some have described law school debt as "the mortgage for a house I can't live in" and "the debt I'll die with."

One student asked why, if law school costs are so high, aren't fewer students applying to law school.

Thies said applications to law schools have dropped substantially the last two years.

He said the nation "may have too many law schools." But he dismissed any notion that there are too many lawyers or law students, saying there's "a tremendous need" for legal services.

When asked what reforms law schools should make, Thies said he didn't want to pre-empt the task force's recommendations. But he said arrangements could be made to match law school students with "aging baby-boomers" in private practice so the young lawyers can eventually take over the practice.

He also said law schools could do a better job facilitating internships and externships for students, recognizing that many students can't afford to serve unpaid.

Separately, Thies said the bar association has launched a two-week food and fundraising campaign for eight regional food banks in Illinois, with the goal of providing 1 million meals for the hungry.

As of Tuesday, the "Lawyers Feeding Illinois" campaign had raised enough for 352,000 meals.

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SaintClarence27 wrote on February 20, 2013 at 9:02 am

He said the nation "may have too many law schools." But he dismissed any notion that there are too many lawyers or law students, saying there's "a tremendous need" for legal services

Yeah, he's definitely wrong here. If there are 25,000 new jobs and 45,000 graduates, there are too many lawyers and law students. Yes, there is a need for legal services, but only money creates the jobs, and most of that need can't pay a dime.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

Pro bona work in exchange for law school debt at public defender wages?  Work five years serving the 50 % plus of Americans who cannot afford justice in exchange for law school debt.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

Who's gonna pay? Seriously there isn't even enough funding to pay all of the graduates public defender wages, much less cover their debt as well.

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Your right there is not enough money to cover all of them.  Maybe, the top of the class graduates?  There is an inequity in justice which can not be denied.  The other law school grads will have to work in other professions, or work for Dad. They know what they are doing when they apply for law school.  There should be no bailout on their college debts either.  If the Dance graduate has to pay back their school loans, and they should; the law school graduate should pay back loans also.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I would say a very large chunk of them do NOT know what they are doing when they apply to law school. Look, say, at for-profit schools like Cooley. A terrible institution, makes up job placement statistics, brings in 2,000 students per year, then immediately puts half of them in the street after the first year (and taking $40,000 in tuition).

You're also assuming that top-of-the-class graduates are the ones who need the loan repayment anyway. Generally, they aren't. If you're not in the top 1/3 at higher-end institutions (or top 10 or 5% at midrange), you're not going to get an especially well-paying job. And there IS no bailout on college debts - they're non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Of course, since a lot of that money is owed to the Federal Government, I think that it would be a good idea to make sure that it's a good investment before the government ends up contributing to Cooley tuition.

Bulldogmojo wrote on February 20, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Oh I see so...The oh so earnest and caring law students who want to help the downtrodden with their "clinic" in their Jelly Shoes didn't even know what they were doing when they applied to law school. Competent defence lawyers in the making. This sounds like a rough draft of that movie The Paper Chase.

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 20, 2013 at 2:02 pm

No, I'm saying that the people who go to a top 30 school like Illinois are generally well informed. The people who go to the for-profit schools like Cooley really aren't.

Student loan serf wrote on February 26, 2013 at 10:02 am

There is a need for affordable legal services and the multitude of lawyers will provide it in the future. $300 bankrupties.  $200 evictions.  $1,000 divorces.  $100 wills.  $25 speeding ticket.  $500 foreclosure defenses.  Things of these nature.  How do you do it?  Keep costs down. 

No secretaries, law clerks or associates to pay for.  Use technology - cell phones, texting, online filing, networking on the cloud, free legal reserach through fastcase, etc. 

Of course implicit in this is lower incomes for lawyers in general.  Except for the corporate attorney.  i've accepted that I'll earn less than money than my peers, and I'll probably work more hours, and the student loans will take a bite of my income too - but I'm always busy with work and the phone is always ringing.  It's the new business model.  The old business model of law is fading, fast. 

SaintClarence27 wrote on February 26, 2013 at 12:02 pm

But with the fading of that business model comes the obligation to lower law school costs.