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Law School Debt and the Mortgage Meltdown

Kelly Francis//September 21, 2010

Law School Debt and the Mortgage Meltdown

Kelly Francis//September 21, 2010

By Kelly Francis

A recent post by Heather Diersen, “Dear Law School: It’s all your fault. Signed, Recent grad,” has (unsurprisingly) set off a firestorm of commentary regarding law school debt, unemployment statistics, and to some degree, personal responsibility.

I agree with Heather that it’s a bit simplistic to blame the law schools.  It’s also a bit simplistic to blame the grads themselves or the poor economy.  As many have noted, this situation did not occur overnight and is not unique to the legal profession.  In many ways, the glut of lawyers and the enormous debt loads resemble the mortgage crisis (yes, the law degree hanging above your head or shoved in the back of your closet is now something akin to a toxic asset).  The law schools, the ABA, and the federal government have shown a startling degree of irresponsibility in handing out student loans and law degrees to whoever will sign on the dotted line, regardless of their ability to land a job or eventually make good on the debt.  In turn, the students themselves should certainly shoulder their fair share of the blame for failing to read between the lines or see the forest for the trees.  Much like the mortgage crisis, however, it’s difficult not to assign blame to the parties that appear to be profiting the most from the drunken free for all, and in the current situation, that’s not the students.

I am always struck by how quickly these dialogues turn bitter, resentful or angry, though my suspicion is that some of this anger has less to do with the immediate question of law school debt, and more to do with the unstated reality behind all the heated arguments.  What’s difficult for many of us to fathom is this concept that something like higher education, even with federal student aid, is just not something that all Americans can afford.  If this is true, what does that mean for America?  What does that mean for capitalism?  What does that mean for the future?

It is surprising to note how much hostility is coming not only from those who are struggling with student debt or unemployment, but also from those who appear to be thriving.  At least until we consider how those struggles are threatening core ideas about meritocracy and fairness.  It is certainly easier to believe that others are unqualified, that they are being unreasonable in their job searches, and that they have somehow overextended themselves beyond typical tuition expenses than it is to believe that cracks are forming in the system.  That it is no longer that simple to pull yourself out of a working class existence by enrolling in school and applying yourself to your studies.  That you can graduate from a top 20law school with honors and still find yourself unable to make ends meet.  Anytime you question long-standing beliefs about God or country like that, you should expect to have some venom thrown your way.

I don’t doubt that I’ll be taken to task for making sweeping generalizations based on one issue that is quite close and personal, but I figured I’d save the full blown theories for another post.

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