The amount of student-loan debt that many recent graduates are carrying is a cause for concern for the entire legal profession.
The financial crisis has caused stress and suffering, but it has also brought some benefits. Among them, the many articles, blog posts, and books, including a series of articles in the New York Times by David Siegel, and a well-argued book by Washington University law professor Brian Z. Tamanaha called Failing Law Schools, that have brought to the attention of the profession and the public a crisis in legal education. Tamanaha shows that a graduate earning the median reported salary for 2010 graduates, $63,000.00, and with a typical amount of law school debt, $120,000.00, cannot repay that debt within 10 years, and that in fact, to do so would require a salary well over $120,000.00 per year. One of Tamanaha's proposals is that the ABA should permit law schools to offer a two-year program either along with or instead of the three-year J.D. Cutting a year off law-school training could cut graduates' debt by one-third.
On Friday I attended a meeting at NYU Law School where a panel that included Professor Tamanaha, former NYLS dean Richard Matasar, and others, discussed Professor Samuel Estreicher's own proposal that the New York Court of Appeals should allow law students to take the bar exam after the second year of law school. The Chief Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman and Judge Victoria A. Graffeo
were there, as were numerous law school professors and the Executive Director of the Board of Law Examiners, John McAlary. The audience appeared respectful, interested, and willing to explore Professor Estreicher's proposal.
The size of law graduates' student loan debt concerns me. I often hear from graduates of my own bar-preparation programs who cannot move to a new job, or a new state, for fear of being unable to pay their law school debt. This is deplorable. A young lawyer with a $100,000 debt feels trapped and vulnerable and may even be tempted to ethical lapses. This is not a problem just for law schools. By whatever means, all of us in the legal profession must work towards a solution.