Thursday, December 14, 2017

No Exit: Thousands of law-school graduates face a lifetime of debt with little prospect of landing good attorney jobs

You say you went to law school to pursue a better life. Your LSAT scores weren't so hot, so you were turned down by the top law schools. Harvard and Yale tossed out your application with its other junk mail and sent you an elegant rejection letter, complete with a genuine-looking robo-signature from someone in the admissions office.

But a lower-tier law school welcomed you with open arms. Let's say it's a for-profit school like Arizona Summit or Florida Coastal. Or maybe a nonprofit, private law school like Thomas M. Cooley in Michigan, Thomas Jefferson in San Diego, or McGeorge in Sacramento. Or maybe you received an acceptance letter from a bottom-rung public law school like Southern Illinois or Texas Southern.

And so you went to law school. You were vaguely aware that job prospects for people who graduate from bottom-tier schools aren't good and a high percentage of graduates fail the bar exam. But you're special. You'll study hard, you'll prepare for the bar exam, you'll  pound on doors until a law firm offers you a good job. 

And when you get that J.D. degree, your life will suddenly change for the better. You'll drive a nice car, get married, and buy a craftsman-style house like the happy people who inhabit television commercials.

And of course you took out student loans. To your surprise, back-of-the-pack law schools are just as expensive as Princeton and Stanford. Total costs, including living expenses turned out to be $40,000 a year, $50,000 a year, or even $60,000 a year.

But in for a penny, in for a pound. You realized you can't work your way through law school like in the old days because no one can make enough money from a part-time job to pay a $40,000 tuition bill. So you took out loans every semester and when you walked across the stage to receive your law school diploma, you owed $200,000.

You studied hard for the bar examination and paid for a bar review course. But you didn't pass the exam.

And then you realized--fully realized for the first time--you owe $200,000 in student loans and you will never get a good job as a lawyer.

What's your exit strategy?

There is no exit strategy. You must pay back those student loans whether or not you get a good job or pass the bar exam.  You can stall for time by getting an economic hardship deferment that excuses you from making monthly loan payments. But the deferment doesn't stop interest from accruing. In a few years, the $200,000 you borrowed will grow to $300,000.  

Maybe you were enticed to enroll in a crummy law school based on misrepresentations about the law school's employment rate. Can you sue for fraud? Yes you can, but so far at least, fraud suits against law schools have been unsuccessful. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas M. Cooley both beat that wrap.

Can you discharge your student loans in bankruptcy? Maybe. Michael Hedlund, a graduate of Willamette School of Law won a partial discharge of his student loans after 10 years of litigation. But several law-school graduates have struck out in the bankruptcy courts. Mark Lilly, a McGeorge law-school graduate, and Mark Tetzlaff, a Florida Coastal graduate, lost their adversary actions in spite of the fact that their law degrees did not enable them to get good attorney jobs. Heather Coplin, a McGeorge law-school graduate working as a waitress, only obtained a partial discharge of her student loans, which totaled almost half a million dollars.

*****

Law used to be a profession, and law schools once operated as professional schools with high ethical standards. Today, however, a great many law schools are nothing more than elegant con games designed to rake in federal student-aid money.

So before you enroll in a third-rate law school, do some research. Read Paul Campos' article in Atlantic. This article was the inspiration for John Grisham's recent novel The Rooster Bar, which tells the story of a young man who attended a dodgy for-profit law school.  And read some of the bankruptcy cases that have been decided against law-school graduates who were unable to find good jobs as attorneys. In particular, read the Tetzlaff case and the Lilly case.

And if you still want to enroll at Florida Coastal or Arizona Summit or Southern Illinois or Thomas Jefferson or Thomas M. Cooley, check yourself into a psychiatric facility--because you probably need to have your head examined.




References

Paul Campos. Don't Go to Law School (Unless). Createspace.com, 2012.

Paul Campos. The Law School Scam. Atlantic Magazine, September 2014. 

Coplin v. U.S. Department of Education,  Case No. 13-46108, Adversary No. 16-04122, 2017 WL 6061580 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. December 6, 2017) (unpublished decision).

Steven J. Harper. Too Many Law Students, Too Few Legal Jobs, New York Times, August 25, 2015. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/opinion/too-many-law-students-too-few-legal-jobs.html

Hedlund v.Educational Resources Institute, 718 F.3d 848, 851 (9th Cir. 2013). 

Lilly v. IllinoisStudent Assistance Commission, 538 B.R. 45 (Bankr. S.D. Cal. 2013).

MacDonald v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School, 724 F.3d 654 (6th Cir. 2013).

David Segal, Is Law School A Losing Game? New York Times, January 8, 2011. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/business/09law.html?_r=0


Joshua Wright. The Oversaturated Job Market for Lawyers Continues and On-the-Side Legal Work GrowsEMSI blog, January 10, 2014.

Staci Zaretsky. Verdict Reached in the Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson Landmark Case Over Fraudulent Employment Statistics. Abovethelaw.com, March 24, 2016.



Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Coplin v. U.S. Dep't of Education: Bankruptcy court orders single mother of 4 disabled children to repay $222,000 in student loans

Heather Coplin graduated from University of Pacific's McGeorge law school in 2009 and gave birth to triplets that same year. The infants were born prematurely and all three suffer from profound disabilities. At age 8, one triplet is incontinent and requires an electric wheelchair for mobility. The other two triplets have muscular issues that impair their mobility. Two triplets have required shunts to drain spinal fluid.

Coplin also has a 15-year-old child who suffers from autism. He is six feet tall, weighs 340 pounds and engages in "anxiety-induced acting-out behavior." Coplin has called the police on several occasions to deal with her son's aggressiveness.

Coplin herself is bipolar and has made several suicide attempts.

Although Coplin graduated law school in 2009, she was unable to pass the state bar exam until 2012. She practiced law for a time and even established her own firm. She found, however, that family issues prevented her from working as an attorney. At time of trial, Coplin was a night-shift waitress at the Muckleshoot Casino

Coplin filed an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court to discharge almost half a million dollars in student-loan debt, some of it accruing interest at the rate of 10 percent. Navient, one of her creditors, agreed to discharge part of the debt, but three creditors opposed a discharge: ECMC, the U.S. Department of Education and University of the Pacific.

In a decision entered a few days ago, Judge Mary Jo Heston granted Coplin a partial discharge. Utilizing the three-pronged  Brunner test, Judge Heston concluded Coplin only met two prongs.

First, Coplin met the first prong, which required her to show she could not pay back her student loans and maintain a minimal standard of living.  She also met a second prong, requiring her to show she had handled her student loans in good faith.

Nevertheless, Judge Heston did not grant Coplin a full discharge. Coplin had about $1850 in discretionary monthly income, the judge pointed out.  She could put that amount toward paying off her student loans. Judge Heston ruled that Coplin could pay back $222,000 over a ten-year period; and thus she only granted Coplin a partial discharge.

It should be pointed out that the only reason Coplin had any discretionary income was that she was living in her fiancee's home rent free. In addition, I don't think the bankruptcy judge accurately estimated Coplin's ongoing medical expenses. Coplin said she visited doctors 6 or 7 times a week due to her children's medical issues.

These are my reflections on the Coplin decision:

First, I was struck by Coplin's strong work ethic. As Judge Heston noted, Coplin had worked continuously at a variety of jobs since graduating from law school. She practiced law, sold real estate, worked as a delivery driver, and finally wound up working the night shift as a casino waitress.  No one can say she didn't do her best to feed her family.

Second, I was shocked by the ruthlessness of Coplin's creditors. The creditors--including the U.S. Department of Education--argued Coplin should be denied a discharge because she had not lived frugally.  They pointed to the fact that she occasionally dined at fast food restaurants, had cable television, and had taken a modest vacation.

Is Betsy DeVos' Department of Education saying that a casino waitress with four disabled children is living extravagantly because she occasionally eats at McDonald's? Yes, it is.

Finally, I was astonished by the arrogance of University of the Pacific, where Coplin went to law school. One would think the university would be embarrassed by the fact that one of its law graduates racked up half a million dollars in student-loan debt (including accrued interest), took three years to pass the bar exam and was working as a waitress 8 years after obtaining her law degree. But no--UP wants its money--at 10 percent interest.

In sum, I found the Coplin decision disheartening. If a waitress with four disabled children can't obtain a complete discharge of her student loans in a bankruptcy court then it is difficult to see how any student-loan debtor is entitled to bankruptcy relief. God help us.

Muckleshoot Casino, where attorney Heather Coplin works as a waitress

References

Coplin v. U.S. Department of Education,  Case No. 13-46108, Adversary No. 16-04122, 2017 WL 6061580 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. December 6, 2017).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Graduate students' tuition waivers will become taxable income if the House's "tax reform' bill becomes law: Do the universities care?

The House of Representatives approved a "tax reform" bill last month. If the bill becomes law, graduate students' tuition waivers will become taxable income.

This is a big deal. Numerous research universities grant tuition waivers to their graduate students in return for useful work--instructing undergraduates, for example, or serving as laboratory assistants for professors' ongoing research projects.

Under current law, graduate students' tuition waivers are not considered taxable income, and the House's tax bill will hit these students hard. Tuition for many graduate programs can easily top $40,000 a year. If tuition waivers are taxed, most graduate students who receive them will be forced to take out larger student loans simply to pay their federal taxes and stay in graduate school.

This provision is not in the Senate version of the tax bill, so differences between the Senate's bill and the House's bill will be resolved by a joint committee.

This pernicious provision is solely the work of House Republicans, because no House Democrat voted for the bill. Apparently, the Republican legislators are clueless regarding the impact of taxing tuition waivers or they simply don't give a damn.

Will the research universities fight to keep the tuition waiver language out of the tax bill? I doubt it.

The big research universities are more concerned about their endowments than they are about graduate students' tax worries.  The Senate and House versions of the tax bill both call for a 1.4 percent excise tax on university endowments with funds in excess of a quarter million dollars per student.

Douglas Warner, a Yale trustee and retired investment banker, thundered against the proposed excise tax a few days ago. Such a tax would threaten Yale's ability to "build the human and intellectual capital the country requires to thrive as a global leader," Warner declared; but he didn't say a word about the tax bill's effect on graduate students.

 Let's face it. Universities aren't overly concerned about a tax on graduate students' tuition waivers because the harm falls on students, not the universities. The universities know graduate students will absorb this new tax simply by taking out more student loans.


Yale Trustee Douglas Warner: Don't tax Yale's Endowment!


References

Jared Walczak. Important Differences Between the House and Senate Tax Reform Bills Heading Into Conference. Taxfoundation.org, December 2, 2017/.

Douglas A. Warner. The GOP Tax Bill Will Hurt U.S. Universities. Politico.com, December 1, 2017.  

Saturday, December 9, 2017

It's official: The Republicans hate student-loan debtors

A few days ago, Republicans introduced their bill for revising the Higher Education Act. Some provisions in the GOP proposal are astonishing in their cruelty and contempt for student debtors.
  • Abolishing income-drive repayment plans. For starters, the Republicans want to end all student-loan forgiveness. Goodbye PAYE. Goodbye REPAY. Students who can't pay off their loans under the standard 10-year repayment plan will be forced into income-driven repayment plans that continue until their loans are paid off--which for many of them will be never.
  • Abolishing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The GOP wants to abolish the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which Congress created in 2007. Hundreds of thousands of students have entered into public-service jobs expecting to have their college loans forgiven after 10 years. If the Republican proposal becomes law, some of these people may be grandfathered into the PSLF program, but the program will be shut down.
  • Forbidding states from enforcing consumer protection laws against student loan servicers. Buried on page 464 of the GOP's bill is a provision that forbids states from regulating the student-loan serving companies.  Some state AGs have vigorously pursued wrongdoers in the loan servicing business, and Republicans apparently want to shield the debt collectors from state consumer protection laws.
Where are these pernicious Republican ideas coming from? Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is Chair of the House Education Committee, and she supports all these nasty proposals. But Foxx is not pulling the strings. These toxic proposals are coming from the heart of the Trump administration--and undoubtedly from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

I don't know if these punitive GOP proposals will make it into federal law. But if they do, Republicans will push millions of college borrowers into a lifetime of indebtedness.  It's almost as if the GOP wants to create an underclass of sharecroppers.

President Trump and his fiendish Secretary of Education (who has financial ties to the debt collection business) may think their scheme to punish student borrowers will play to the Republican base. But if these proposals get through Congress, there will be hell to pay in coming elections.  

The Democrats are missing a golden opportunity if they don't take up the banner of student-debt relief.  In my view, they should forget Russia and turn their venom toward Betsy DeVos, who may be Trump's Achillese heel. The Dems need to educate college borrowers about the nation's venal Secretary of Education and rouse them to righteous fury.

Betsy DeVos summer home: Maybe you could get a job there as pool boy


References

Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell, & Melissa Korn. House GOP to Propose Sweeping Changes to Higher EducationWall Street Journal, November 29, 2017.

Jillian Berman. House Republicans seek to roll back state laws protecting student loan borrowers. Marketwatch.com, December 7, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. GOP higher ed plan would end student loan forgiveness in repayment program, overhaul federal financial aidWashington Post, December 1, 2017.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. Dems raise concern about possible links betwen DeVos and student debt collection agencyWashington Post, January 17, 2017.













Tuesday, December 5, 2017

GOP proposal to abolish student-loan forgiveness is Looney Tunes

Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) looks like a kindly grandmother, and maybe she is. But she is also the Chair of the House Education Committee, and her committee's proposal for revising the Higher Education Act makes me wonder if she isn't a cartoon character from Looney Tunes.

Others have commented on the House Committee's proposal--Steve Rhode, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, and a team of Wall Street Journal writers--all insightful and trenchant. I will limit my observations to one component of the Republican proposal, which is nuts.

The House Education Committee proposes to eliminate all student-loan forgiveness in the law to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.  That's right--all student-loan forgiveness.

Currently, student borrowers can enroll in income-driven repayment plans that last from 20 to 25 years. At the end of that term, the remaining balance on a borrower's student loan is forgiven.

The Foxx committee's proposal eliminate those plans and replaces them with a plan that allows borrowers to make income-adjusted payments on their student loans until they they are paid off. Interest will accrue on these loans during the first ten years of repayment, when the loan balance is capped. But borrowers will continue making income-based payments on their loans until they are paid off or they die.

In short, if the GOP proposal becomes law in its present form (which seems unlikely), student debtors will have only two repayment options: the standard ten-year plan or an income-driven plan that doesn't end until the loans are repaid--which for most people will be never.

Representative Foxx's committee labeled this lunatic proposal the PROSPER ACT (Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform), but a more accurate title would be the Slavery Reinstatement Act.

Let's look at the facts. Last year, 1.1 million student borrowers defaulted on their loans at the average rate of 3,000 per day. And that's just for 2016.

How many Americans defaulted on their loans in past years and never got them reinstated?  The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that figure in its 2013 report, and it was 6.5 million.

Nearly six million more are in income-driven repayment plans, and several million borrowers are not making loan payments because they obtained economic hardship deferments. I estimate that from 18 to 20 million Americans are not paying down their student loans because they defaulted, obtained deferments or signed up for income-driven plans that only require them to make token repayments. Most of these people will never pay of their student loans.

And what's the GOP Education Committee's response to this catastrophe? An income-based repayment plan that never ends.

GOP advocates may argue that most borrowers in the proposed income-driven repayment plan will eventually pay off their loans. But that notion is delusional. Borrowers who can't pay off their student loans in ten years will likely never pay them off--no matter how long they make income-based payments.

The student-loan program in its present form is an unmitigated disaster. But Representative Foxx and her GOP cronies on the House Education Committee have done something I thought no one could do. They have come up with a plan that makes this disaster even worse.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC). We really stuck it to 'em this time, Paul.


References

Douglas Belkin, Josh Mitchell, & Melissa Korn. House GOP to Propose Sweeping Changes to Higher Education. Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2017.

Rohit Chopra. A Closer Look at the Trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.




Saturday, December 2, 2017

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and John Kennedy (R-LA): Can these two lead a bipartisan effort for student-loan reform?

Congress is more divided along partisan lines than any time since Representative Preston Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate back in 1856.  No major legislation gets passed with bipartisan support, and Republicans and Democrats seem content to be obstructionists rather than try to do something useful.

Is there no public issue on which Republicans and Democrats can agree? I think there is.

More than 40 million Americans have outstanding student loans, and at least 20 million  can't pay them back.  Last year, 1.1 million college borrowers defaulted on their loans--that's an average rate of 3,000 people a day. People who borrowed to attend for-profit colleges have suffered the most. Nearly half of these hapless souls default within five years of beginning repayment. Among African Americans, the pain is even worse. Three fourths of African Americans who took out student loans to attend for-profit schools eventually default.

Big problems require big solutions. As I have said before, the student loan crisis will not abate until for-profit colleges are kicked out of the federal student-loan program and distressed student debtors are allowed to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.  But these two fixes are politically impossible right now.

But Congress could approve smaller measures of relief  if our elected representatives would just work together. For example:
  • Congress could pass a law barring the federal government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill introduced a bill along these lines but it has gotten nowhere.
  • All student loans should be refinanced at current, low interest rates, something Hillary Clinton endorsed during the 2016 presidential campaign. 
  • Our tax code needs to be amended to make clear that people who complete income-based repayment programs are not taxed when the remaining balance on their loans is forgiven. Representatives Mark Pocan and Frederica Wilson (both Democrats) introduced a bill to accomplish this reform but it has not become law. 
Who in Congress--Republican or Democrat--could disagree with these reforms? Even our most Neanderthal representatives could not look their constituents in the eye if they voted against any of these proposals.

If this is so, how can Congress kick-start bipartisan student-loan relief?  Here is a feasible scenario: Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, could contact Senators Warren and McCaskill and offer to co-sponsor their bill to stop the government from garnishing Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.

Why do I nominate Senator Kennedy for this bipartisan overture? Because Kennedy has shown a commendable reluctance to follow the Republican party line on important policy issues. For example, he was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote against a law that allows financial institutions to force their customers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements.

If Senator Kennedy were to come on board for the Warren-McCaskill bill, other Republican Senators might also signal their support.  Once this bill received some publicity, I predict the Warren-McCaskill-Kennedy bill would be adopted into law without a single dissenting vote in either the House or the Senate.

After this small victory, Republicans and Democrats could join together to provide further relief to suffering college borrowers: lowering interest rates on current student loans, imposing restraints on the government's rapacious debt collectors, revising the tax laws so that participants in income-driven repayment plans aren't taxed on forgiven loan balances.

All these reforms are feasible; indeed they might all pass through Congress with little or no opposition. Some broad-minded legislator just needs to reach across the aisle to get the ball rolling.  Senator Kennedy,  please make that call to Senator Warren and assure her you will support the Warren-McCaskill bill.


Representative Preston Brooks canes Senator Charles Sumner, May 22, 1856
References

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. The disturbing trend of people losing Social Security benefits to student debt. Washington Post, December 20, 2016.

James Gill. John Kennedy is quickly becoming 'Senator No' when facing Donald Trump.
Baton Rouge Advocate, December 3, 2017.

Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip. Clinton to propose 3-month hiatus for repayment of  student loansWashington Post, July 5, 2016.

Melanie Lockert. Surprise! Here's When You'll Owe Taxes on Student Loan Forgiveness (and When You Won't). studentloanhero.com (blog), February 27, 2017.

The Wrong Move on Student LoansNew York Times, April 6, 2017.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Rooster Bar: Why Won't the ABA Shut Down Bottom-Tier For-Profit Law Schools ?

John Grisham's latest novel, titled The Rooster Bar, tells the story of Mark Frazier, a law student who attends a for-profit institution called Foggy Bottom Law School. By the time he is a senior, Mark has accumulated $195,000 in student loans and concludes he made a bad investment.

FBLS's bar pass rates are embarrassing low, and few of its graduates obtains jobs that justify their enormous student-loan debt. By the time FBLS students are seniors, their morale has plummeted, and some even spare verbally with their professors in class. In fact:
To varying degrees, almost everyone Mark knew believed that (1) FBLS was a sub-par law school that (2) made too many promises, and (3) charged too much money, and (4) encouraged too much debt while (5) admitting a lot of mediocre students who really had no business in law school, and (6) were either not properly prepared for the bar exam or (7) to dumb to pass it.
Foggy Bottom Law School is a fictional for-profit law school, but it closely resembles the real ones. Infilaw, owned by an equity group out of Chicago, runs three for profit law schools; and all three are in trouble. Charlotte School of Law closed in August after it lost its license to operate. Arizona Summit Law School was placed on probation last March by the American Bar Association, and the ABA warned Florida Coastal School of Law in October that it was "significantly out of compliance" with the ABA's accreditation standards.

Not surprisingly, Infilaw wants to sell its two law schools that are still open. But why did the American Bar Association ever accredit these schools in the first place? The answer is illusive, but here is a key fact. In the 1995, when Bill Clinton was president, the U.S. Justice Department sued the ABA, claiming it was in violation of federal antitrust laws.  The suit was settled in 1996, and the ABA agreed not to deny accreditation to a law school solely because it was a for-profit entity.

That same year, a law professor named Don Lively started Florida Coastal Law School in Jacksonville, Florida. In 2004, Lively sold out to Sterling Partners, a Chicago-based private-equity firm. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sterling created Infilaw as a holding company for the law schools and lined up additional investors, allegedly including Harvard University's endowment fund.

By almost any measure, all three Infilaw law schools are sub-par institutions. If you want to see the data, visit Law School Transparency's web site.  All three schools charge high tuition rates similar to reputable law schools like Harvard and Yale. Yet these three schools have low bar pass rates and very few graduates find law jobs that justify the enormous student-loan debt they accumulated to get their law degrees.

The for-profit advocates say schools like the Infilaw trio offer opportunities to minority students who are often rejected by reputable schools because of mediocre undergraduate GPAs and low LSAT scores. But the top-tier schools bend over backward to attract minority students and have plenty of scholarship money to recruit them. Too often the people who enroll at for-profit law schools are not academically prepared to study law and often fail their bar exams.

As has been often reported in the media, the job market for recent law graduates is terrible; and the bottom-tier law schools are producing lawyers who run a high risk of failing the bar while facing dismal job prospects.

In short, the integrity of legal education has been seriously undermined by a herd of poor-quality law schools, including the Infilaw schools and several public law schools as well.  Apparently, even Harvard University contributed to this train wreck, although Harvard wouldn't confirm that its endowment fund invested in Infilaw's schools.

The American Bar Association is primarily responsible for this disaster, but is it taking steps to shut down the bottom-feeding law schools? No it is not. In fact, the ABA is considering a measure that would allow law schools to make LSAT scores an optional criteria for law school admission. The purpose of that action, perhaps, is to make it harder to measure just how low some law schools' admission standards really are.



References

John Grisham. The Rooster Bar. New York: Doubleday, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. ABA Backs Testing Choices on law Admissions, Inside Higher Ed, November 7, 2017.

Andrew Kreighbaum. Report: For-Profit Looking to Sell 2 Law Schools. Inside Higher Ed, November 29, 2017.

Josh Mitchell. The Rise and Fall of a Law School Empire Fueled by Student Loans. Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2017.

Law School Transparency web site.

Angela Morris. GRE or LSAT? ABA Council's Latest Move Could Nix Tests Altogether. Law.com, November 3, 2017.

United States v. American Bar Association, 934 F. Supp. 435 (D.D.C. 1996).