This is an issue I revisited with a client the other day — how massive student debt from college and law school impacts attorneys’ career options. We all have our own financial realities to consider and those realities can significantly impact dreams of practicing law. Many lawyers I speak to, whether recent law grads or lawyers at the peak of their careers, have career decisions essentially made for them by their debt or other financial obligations.
For junior lawyers, that debt is usually in the form of student loans and credit card debt accrued during their education. For older lawyers, that debt or other financial obligation takes many more forms. Sometimes they’re discretionary, sometimes they’re not: mortgages, kids’ tuition, child and spousal support, parental support, maintaining an expected lifestyle, pressure to keep up with others…
This situation, of course, has been made worse by the contraction in the legal market, which has meant that at the same time lawyers have more financial pressure on them to secure high paying jobs, there are fewer jobs, fewer high paying jobs, and fewer permanent / full-time jobs. Martha Bergmark, the Executive Director of Voices for Civil Justice, writes:
In her Washington Post opinion, “We don’t need fewer lawyers. We need cheaper ones. Unable to afford representation, more Americans are going to court alone, and they’re losing,” Bergmark points out how career choices driven by student debt impact not only lawyers, but the public. Many lawyers who might be interested in serving lower income communities can’t afford to do so. They have to go after the highest paying jobs simply to pay off their own debt.
Bergmark proposes several ways to bolster legal service for underserved communities, and concludes: