A Young Man Borrows Money to Go to Law School But Can’t Pay Back the Loans
In the early 1990s, Michael Eric Hedlund borrowed more than $85,000 to go to law school. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Michael’s father and brother were attorneys, and he anticipated going to work in his father’s law firm.
Things did not work out as Michael hoped. After graduating from Willamette University’s law school in 1997, Michael took a job in the District Attorney’s office in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He planned to work there for a couple of years and then join his father’s law firm. Unfortunately, Michael failed the bar exam twice. Unable to practice law, he received several extensions on his loan obligations. He applied for a student-loan consolidation, but was told he was ineligible for consolidation because he was not current on his loan payments.
In 1999, Michael found a job as a juvenile counselor, which paid him about $40,000 a year. His monthly loan payments were $800, which he did not pay regularly. In fact, he only made one loan payment. In 2002, two loan creditors began garnishing his wages; and in May 2003, Michael filed for bankruptcy.
Michael’s bankruptcy proceedings stretched on for years. In fact, the original bankruptcy judge who presided over his case died before the case was resolved. In March 2012--nine years after Michael filed for bankruptcy, a federal district court ruled that Michael was not entitled to discharge his student loans in bankruptcy. According Judge Ann Aiken, Michael was not entitled to bankruptcy relief because he had not made a good-faith effort to pay on his loans.
The Pathetic Plight of Many Law School Graduates
Although Judge Aiken rejected Michael’s plea to have his student loans discharged, she was not unsympathetic. Judge Aiken pointed out that law school tuition rose more than three hundred percent between 1989 and 2009, which is twice the rate of inflation for that period and four times the rate of job growth. “Accordingly,” Judge Aiken observed, “with the exception of the independently wealthy, students must take out loans in order to finance their [law] degrees” (p. 907).
Meanwhile, as tuition costs keep going up, wages for beginning attorney are going down. Citing a report by the National Association for Law Placement, Judge Aiken pointed out that annual compensation for first-year associate attorneys in private practice went down in 2010. In addition, the demand for new attorneys is shrinking. According to Judge Aiken, “The most recent statistics indicate that, through the year 2018, there will only be 25,000 openings for the law schools’ 45,000 new graduates each year” (p. 907).
In Judge Aiken’s opinion, “[T]he current higher education system is untenable and unsustainable; as a result, increasing numbers of students will be forced to file for bankruptcy” (p. 908). In the judge’s view, the student loan issue--she did not use the word “crisis”--needs to be addressed at a systematic level.
What is the Significance of the Hedlund Case?
Judge Aiken’s opinion in the Hedlund case paints a poignant picture of the plight of underemployed law-school graduate who borrowed heavily to attend law school. As Judge Aiken pointed out, law school tuitions are now so high that most people must borrow money--a lot of money--to get a legal education. A few years ago, borrowing money to get a law degree was a good bet, but the demand for new lawyers is shrinking and salaries for beginning attorneys are going down. Thousands of law school graduates are finding themselves underemployed in jobs outside the legal field and unable to pay back their student loans. Obviously, this is a huge national problem, not only for law-school graduates, but for law schools and for the legal profession as well.
Under federal bankruptcy law, student-loan debtors cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show “undue hardship.” Most law-school graduates are able to find some kind of employment and thus will not qualify for a bankruptcy discharge under this rigorous standard. Mr. Hedlund, for example, found a non-legal job paying $about 40,000.
Nevertheless, most underemployed law school graduates who have massive student loans will be in dire economic circumstances. Mr. Hedlund was obligated to pay $800 a month on his loans after he graduated, almost an impossible burden for someone making $40,000 a year.
Unable to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy, a lot of underemployed law-school graduates will be forced to apply for an Income-Based Repayment plan (IBR) in order to manage their loan obligations. Under an IBR, as modified by the Obama administration, debtors will obligate themselves to pay 10 percent of their discretionary income for a period of 20 years (White House, 2012).
Obviously, IBR plans are not an ideal solution for law-school graduates who can’t find well-paying jobs. Instead of beginning good careers practicing law, many graduates will wind up being long-term indentured servants to the government, forking over a percentage of their income over a 20-year period. If Michael Hedlund ultimately chooses the IBR option, he won’t be free of his law-school loan obligations until he is in his 60s. Somehow, that does not seem fair.
Brown, M., Haughwout, A., Lee, D., & Mabutas, M. (2012). Grading student loans. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Hedlund v. Educational Resources Institute, Inc., 468 B.R. 901 (D. Or. 2012).
White House, Office of Press Secretary (2012, June 6). Fact Sheet: Helping Americans manage student loan debt with improvements to repayment options. Retrieved from: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/06/fact-sheet-helping-americans-manage-student-loan-debt-improvements-repay