Six-figure debt loads taking 'mental toll' on US law students, ABA study finds

A third of US law school graduates are having to pursue different career paths to pay off debts

Law students in the US are being saddled with huge debts by the time they graduate, forcing lawyers to take unwanted career paths and delay or scrap major life decisions, according to a study by the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.

The ABA’s 2020 Law School Student Debt Survey Report found that more than 75% of the roughly 1,000 respondents had at least $100,000 in student loans, with more than half amassing at least $150,000 and more than a quarter graduating with at least $200,000 of debt.

Roughly a third of new lawyers said they had to choose a different career path because of the size of their debt burden, with almost half saying they had decided to either delay starting a family or not have any children at all, and 56% saying they had decided to either postpone or entirely abandon buying a house. Others said that their debt was making it difficult to provide for their families and causing mental health issues or stress.

Patricia Lee Refo, ABA’s president, said: “This survey report reminds us not only of the scope, scale and incessant growth of the legal profession’s student loan problems, but it highlights debt’s personal and mental toll – especially in communities of colour. We’ve allowed debt to become a prerequisite to practice law, and we must do better.”

The survey found that black, Hispanic, Asian and multiracial law school students generally shouldered a higher debt load than white graduates. Black and African American students were also more likely to take out loans to pay for law school than any other racial profile, with 99% of those respondents saying they had taken out loans compared to 94% of white students and 90% of Asian students.

Black and African American students were also more likely to see their student loan debt grow after graduating, with two-thirds owing more now than when they left law school. By contrast, close to half of all white and Asian graduates had managed to reduce their loan balance, with 11% of Asians and 6% of whites paying off their balance entirely. No black or African American respondents had repaid their debts in full.

In response to the findings, the ABA has set out a number of recommendations to help ease the debt burden for law students, including lowering the cost of a legal education to improve diversity, exploring the impact of debt on mental health and removing the stigma of discussing financial hardship.

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