Law School Blues

Heavy debt plus no jobs plague grads and deter applicants

Back Longreads Jul 1, 2012 By Sigrid Bathen

Like so many recent law school graduates, Seth Benkle searched vainly for a job after graduating from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento in 2010, increasingly stressed about his $160,000 in student loans, interest accruing.

“I pay what I can,” Benkle says. “In the meantime, it’s just growing and growing.”

Benkle, 29, was raised in Roseville, graduated from Oakmont High School and carefully prepared for a legal career, building his resume after earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of California, Irvine.

“I never planned to be a litigator,” he says. “I always planned to have a career in public policy.”

For two years before law school, he worked as a clerk in the San Francisco office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. During law school, he held several government internships and jobs, including a paid summer associate’s position in the state Legislative Counsel’s office. Along the way, he received awards and scholarships, was on the dean’s list at both UC Irvine and McGeorge, wrote about legislative issues for the McGeorge Law Review and served as president of the school’s Governmental Affairs Student Association.

He finally found work last year in San Francisco as a temporary contract attorney for agencies that review the often mind-numbing volumes of paper and online documents involved in legal cases.
“It pays pretty well, but it’s basically legal temp work,” Benkle says. “I may work for six months and be off for three weeks. I just started a job that will last eight days.”

He also volunteers in the San Francisco Bar Association’s legal assistance program for low-income residents. And he feels fortunate to have health insurance through San Francisco’s public health insurance program.

His experience is typical of thousands of recent graduates across the country who were in law school during the recession and upon passing the bar exam learned that a law degree no longer guarantees a well-paid, secure job — much less the ability to pay off massive school loans. While there are some programs to trim school loan debt for lawyers who work in public service or for nonprofits, both sectors have been hard hit by the economic downturn in the Sacramento region. And, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

“I couldn’t find work in Sacramento at all, even law clerking,” Benkle says. “I like to think I question the things that I do, not follow blindly. I thought I’d be able to pay these (student loans) off and be a lawyer. But that’s not the reality.”

Benkle takes most of the blame for not recognizing growing signs of trouble before and during the recession, but he also questions why law schools continued to enroll students and promise huge sums of financial aid.

A key measure of the rocky legal job market has been the sharp decline in the number of students taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). There was a 16.2 percent drop in the number of LSATs administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) in the 2011-2012 academic year, which followed a 9.6 percent decline in the 2010-2011 academic year. Those declines came after a 13.3 percent increase in 2009-2010 and a 9.6 percent hike in 2008-2009, as students returned to school, seeking more “secure” careers at the height of the recession.

Now, many law schools across the country are cutting enrollment. LSAC figures from early May 2012 (when an estimated 95 percent of applications nationwide had been reported) show a 14.6 percent decline in applications to American Bar Association-accredited law schools nationwide, continuing a downward trend from fall 2011 when applications were down 10.7 percent.

Administrators at the prestigious UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco announced in May that 20 percent fewer students would be admitted in the fall, and several staff positions were eliminated.

“The critics of legal education are right,” said Hastings Chancellor Frank Wu in a dramatic announcement that made national headlines. “There are too many law schools, and there are too many law students and we need to do something about that.”

A ‘tectonic shift’ in the market for lawyers
For young law school graduates who believed a law degree meant a secure, well-paying job, the reality has been particularly disconcerting. Many graduates are expressing public anger in articles and blogs — and even lawsuits — excoriating what they see as an entrenched system in which high student debt was encouraged, or at least not discouraged, by a law school culture fueled by easy credit and empty assurances. And, while top-rated law schools report high levels of full-time student employment after graduation, many others suggest realities characterized by longer job searches and part-time or temporary employment.

“It’s a tough market for law schools generally,” says Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law, where annual tuition has increased to more than $46,000 and is climbing as a result of general economic malaise and state budget cuts. “The job market is rough, and prospective students are unclear (about) what will happen. I don’t think we’re going to return to the law firm heyday when hiring $160,000 associates was their way of doing business.”

Johnson says UC Davis does not plan to cut its law school admissions and has long offered numerous grants and scholarships to help defray student loans. And, like many law schools, it has stepped up internship and job-placement services to current students through an active career-
services center. It also increased outreach efforts — particularly in underserved communities with poor representation among law students, mainly African Americans and Latinos — to educate undergraduates about the realities of law school.

“I thought I’d be able to pay these (student loans) off and be a lawyer. But that’s not the reality.”

Seth Benkle, graduate, University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

At McGeorge, administrators are sharply scaling back admissions in response to the sluggish, rapidly changing job market for lawyers. Last fall’s first-year, daytime class of 181 students was 100 students smaller than the first-year, day class of fall 2010 and the smallest since 1969. McGeorge’s law tuition is more than $41,000 annually (excluding books, housing and other fees), and the school offers evening classes as well as its highly regarded programs in international law and clinical experience.

McGeorge Dean Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, who is retiring this summer after 10 years in the position, made minority recruitment a priority and says law schools must respond to “a tectonic shift in the market” for legal services.

“This is a market that since the early ’70s has done nothing but increase, paralleling to some extent what we saw in housing,” she says. “Nationally, many law schools have simply taken advantage of what seemed to be irrevocable growth, with a sizable growth in the number of law schools and hence the available seats.”

“We’ve long been too large for the market we serve,” she says of McGeorge. “We should be smaller. We don’t want to bring students in who can’t find jobs.”

Always an anomaly of sorts among the region’s law schools, Lincoln Law School in east Sacramento has long served a specific niche of working adults who, for various reasons, want to earn a law degree. Enrollment has remained consistent in recent years, from 220 to 260 students (230 currently), and tuition runs about $10,000 annually. Established in 1969 and accredited by the California State Bar but not the American Bar Association, Lincoln offers classes taught by working attorneys. Graduates include many local judges as well as Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully and Sheriff Scott Jones. The school maintains a job bank, stays in touch with its alumni and many students “pay as they go,” often graduating with no school loan debt, says longtime Registrar Angelia Harlow. “I don’t know of many who can’t find jobs,” she adds.

Current law students cautiously optimistic
Though many recent law school graduates struggle to find legal jobs, current students express cautious optimism about the future as law firms slowly begin to expand what had been a drastically curtailed pool of summer and post-graduation hiring.

Heather Cantua, 23, who completed her second year at UC Davis law school in May and is in the top third of her class, expects to emerge with “only” $50,000 in student loan debt when she graduates next year — the result of a UC Davis program in which a portion of law student tuition is returned to students in the form of need-based grants. She also works as a paid research assistant for one of her law professors and has been active in the school’s King Hall Women’s Law Association.

A UC Davis undergraduate from Livermore who went directly to law school after earning her Bachelor’s in sociology, Cantua had no student loans as an undergraduate. Her working-class parents, who are not college graduates and have experienced layoffs and other economic setbacks during the recession, paid the tuition for their only child.

“My mom works in a community college, and education has always been important,” Cantua says. “They had planned for it, put a lot of emphasis on it.”

This summer, she will work as a paid summer associate at Reed Smith in San Francisco at a time when many law firms have scaled back — or even rescinded — paid summer associate offers, which historically have been the path to permanent employment for law school students and graduates.

Other law students have taken unpaid internships to gain legal experience. Colin Roberts, 25, who expects to graduate from McGeorge in the top third of his class in December, searched unsuccessfully for a paid summer position in Sacramento.

“It was ultra-competitive,” he says. “Firms that traditionally hire several students over the summer may be hiring one or none.”

Roberts says he feels fortunate to have landed an unpaid summer internship as a law clerk at the California Department of Water Resources. President of the Governmental Affairs Student Association at McGeorge, he has long planned a public-policy career, double majoring in political studies and peace and conflict studies at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, and serving in a peer mediation program at his Manhattan Beach high school.

“That got me interested in alternative dispute resolution,” he says. “And I decided mediation was something I wanted to pursue as a career.” In college, he took a course in water policy and chose McGeorge for its environmental law, conflict resolution and public-policy programs.

Despite high student loan debt estimated at about $150,000, Roberts says he has no regrets about his decision.

“Anything I think I would be happy doing would require a graduate degree. And the (juris doctorate) is one of the most flexible,” he says. “But I will say that a lot of law students don’t know what they’re getting into. Taking out $150,000 in loans with interest, I admit I’m scared that I will have that much debt hanging over me.”

Roberts is hopeful, however, that the public-policy and government job market for lawyers — once a secure career choice in the capital — will improve and that national concern over crippling student loan debt will result in more programs to forgive and/or reduce that debt.

His hopes were recently buoyed when his girlfriend, who graduated at the top of her McGeorge class, started a job with a government consulting firm in Sacramento after a year of searching.

For Kelly Bradfield, 27, her first year of law school at UC Davis ended a few days early, when she rescheduled a final exam to deliver her first child. She graduated from UC Berkeley with an English degree in 2007 and landed a job at the UC Center in downtown Sacramento the same year, working as a policy analyst and legislative liaison for the center, which provides an intensive internship and seminar program for public-policy and journalism students from UC schools throughout the state. The highly regarded program was nearly eliminated during massive budget cuts in 2009. The program survived, but several positions, including Bradfield’s, were cut.

Undeterred, she found a job as volunteer and development coordinator for the nonprofit Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, which provides emergency housing and services to abused and neglected children. Always focused on a public-policy career, she is firm in her career choices. “I know I want to work in Sacramento in public policy,” she says. “I’m familiar with the terrain.”

She serves on the board of the King Hall Women’s Law Association and was impressed by the support for new mothers in the law school. “They let me rearrange my finals, and there is a babysitting cooperative on campus, which is free, staffed by volunteers who watch the kids when students are in class,” she says.

Her husband, Bryant Burmich, is a manager with the California State Teachers Retirement System in Sacramento. “We are really blessed with his gainful employment during this unstable employment time, and I was able to take the summer off,” she says.

As for the high cost of law school, she says, “I think I’ll be really lucky if I end up with $100,000 (in debt). … I can’t believe I just said that.”

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