Thursday, December 14, 2017

No Exit: Graduates of bottom-tier law schools have mountains of student-loan debt and little prospect of ever paying it off

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 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.



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