Bar association: Restrict law school loans, redo curricula
CHAMPAIGN — An Illinois Bar Association report says government lending restrictions and a reordering of law school curricula are the best ways to control the growing debt load that law students face.
The report, issued last week after a series of hearings around the state, recommends that:
— The federal government limit the amount that law students can borrow from it.
— Federal lending be targeted to students most in need.
— Federal loan eligibility be restricted to law schools whose graduates meet certain employment and debt-repayment outcomes.
— Law schools experiment with new educational models in order to control costs.
— Law schools put more emphasis on practice-oriented courses and on apprenticeships and teaching assistantships.
The report said the bar association could do more also, through apprenticeships, pro bono projects and providing debt counseling to lawyers and law students.
Association President John Thies, an Urbana attorney, said in February that today's law students, on average, face a debt load of about $100,000 for their legal education — and that doesn't include debt from their undergraduate education.
At the University of Illinois, the average amount owed by a 2011 law school graduate with debt was $90,432, the report said.
According to the report, the typical in-state law student at the UI had $38,567 in tuition and fee expenses during 2011-12, plus $16,618 in living expenses, for a total annual expense of $55,185.
The report said it's often not easy to pay down law-school debt, given starting salaries in many areas.
Starting salaries for attorneys in downstate markets such as Peoria, Bloomington and Springfield, for example, are often at or slightly below $50,000 a year, the report said.
Plus, a sizable group of law school graduates don't even land jobs as attorneys.
"Almost 50 percent of graduates from the Class of 2011 are unemployed or underemployed," the report said.
At the UI, only 52.1 percent of 2011 graduates had full-time permanent jobs requiring a law degree nine months after graduation.
The special committee that compiled the report was particularly blunt about the overall quality of law school education, stating "the training that law students receive in law school today is increasingly not worth its high cost."
Many attorneys complain their new hires aren't "practice-ready," the report said.
In suggesting changes to law school curricula, the ISBA committee urged law schools to provide fewer "exotic courses" such as "Law and Literature."
Instead, they should focus on "practice-oriented courses" that give students a chance to apply legal principles to real-life problems. Using live-client clinics is one way to do that, the report said.
The committee also suggested more writing assignments, the teaching of law office management and the offering of bar review courses for no extra charge.
The report endorsed keeping the third year of law school. But it suggested the second and third years include elements such as apprenticeships.
It also recommended changing tenure and hiring requirements to put less emphasis on scholarship.
"Although they are paid more, faculty today teach less and have fewer administrative responsibilities than several decades ago, all in the name of granting more time for scholarship," the report said.
"Today most law professors teach fewer than 12 credit hours each year, and many teach fewer than 10," it added.
The committee noted UI College of Law Dean Bruce Smith's testimony that certain scholars produce valuable work.
But the report went on to say "a significant portion" of research and writings is "of questionable value."
The committee also suggested that law schools use "more properly-trained and -supervised adjunct faculty."
During committee hearings, Smith testified that the UI is guaranteeing new law school students that it won't raise their tuition during their three years.
Corrie Haack, a first-year law student at the UI, said she doesn't carry as much debt as some of her peers. She figures her law school costs will run about $18,000 a year — still a lot, given that she hopes to become a public-interest lawyer.
"I know my salary will not be as big as corporate salaries," Haack said Monday. "I want to do animal welfare."
Haack said she and her classmates are concerned about placement figures, fearing the job situation for law students has deteriorated in the past year.
The ISBA report said carrying large amounts of law school debt could force students to focus only on high-paying positions, specifically jobs in corporate law in the Chicago area, the report said.
That focus could deprive other geographic areas and populations of adequate legal services, it added. The trend could also make it more difficult for small and moderately sized law firms to recruit attorneys.