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From the President

What is the value of a law degree? Part 2

By Bill Hebert
President, State Bar of California

Bill HebertIn last month’s column, I wrote about the value of a law degree. This month, I’ll explore the information available to law school students, the effects of transparency on the legal education system, and what our profession can do to help prospective students, law students and law school graduates. I owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Smith, the dean of California Western School of Law, and Bill Kahler, its director of financial aid, for their time and helpful advice. 

Law school reporting needs greater transparency

Young lawyers are demanding greater transparency in the law school application process. The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division last month voted to recommend that the ABA urge all law schools it accredits to provide more information to their applicants. The Young Lawyers’ report in support of its “Truth in Law School Education” resolution proclaims, “It is incumbent upon the legal profession and law schools to provide each and every potential and current law student with information that will accurately reflect the employment and financial realities that they will face upon graduation from law school.” The report notes that post-graduate law school employment percentages seem to be increasing, but that could be an artifact of law schools providing on-campus jobs for their graduates. To better prepare law students for the financial realities of a legal profession, the “truth” resolution would require ABA-accredited schools to report — in their catalogues, on their websites and in their notices of acceptance —  accurate data that reflects whether their graduates obtain full- or part-time employment, whether it is in the public or private sector, their median reported salaries and whether the employment is temporary or permanent. The resolution also would require schools to report the cost of a legal education on a “per credit” basis. ABA President Stephen Zack reportedly supports the resolution, which will be presented to the House of Delegates in August. 

Some young lawyers would argue that the “truth” resolution doesn’t go far enough. In a recent white paper, two Vanderbilt Law School students (one a current student and the other a 2010 graduate), propose dramatic improvements in transparency of employment reporting by American law schools. The authors accuse law schools of hiding employment outcomes in aggregate statistical forms and identify post-graduation outcomes, the value of a degree and actual job opportunities as key selection factors in choosing a school. One crucial selection element is the amount of debt a law student can accumulate and expect to repay with or without financial hardship. The authors propose a model that would provide more detail about salary and employment data so prospective students would get a true picture of their post-graduate financial situation. The paper is an excellent source of information about the data presently available to applicants and law students. 

The profession needs to require greater transparency in reporting by law schools. As a condition of ABA accreditation, law schools should be required, at a minimum, to comply with the Truth in Law School Education standards, if not even more rigorous reporting standards. In California, it might be time to consider imposing the same requirements on our state-accredited schools, so applicants can make informed choices. 

The drumbeat of criticism over the law school rankings in U.S. News and World Report gets louder by the day. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell summarizes the various critiques of the U.S. News rating system. Lawyers, alumni and voluntary bars could lobby deans to stop conforming their practices to help raise their standings in these rankings. 

Recent improvements in student loan repayment options

Within the past few years, the federal government has passed laws making it somewhat less painful to repay student loans. Income-Based Repayment (IBR) is a payment option for federal student loans. Repayment is capped at 15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income and for most eligible borrowers, IBR loan payments will be less than 10 percent of their income, and even less for borrowers with really low earnings. The remaining balance is forgiven after 25 years of qualifying payments. IBR covers most federal loans, but it does not cover private, state or institutional loans.  

Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, borrowers may qualify for forgiveness of any remaining balance on their eligible federal student loans after they have made 120 payments (10 years’ worth) on those loans under certain repayment plans while employed by certain public service employers. The types of payment plans include IBR, Income-Contingent Repayments (that is, IBR’s inferior older cousin) or standard 10-year repayments. Certain types of repayments and loans are not included, so students must plan carefully to take advantage of this program. Eligible jobs include working as a full-time employee for an entity organized under IRS code § 501(c)(3); as a full-time federal, state, local or tribal employee, which includes working in the office of an attorney general, district attorney, public defender, Judicial Advocates Corps, the FBI, etc.; as a full-time employee in AmeriCorps or Peace Corps; or working in a job that satisfies a public-service job test set out in the statute. 


There is a need for private giving to fill the financial gap for many law students. The California Bar Foundation gives diversity and public interest scholarships to worthy students as well as scholarships to cover bar exam costs. Launched in 2008, the Diversity Scholarship aims to bolster the pipeline of diverse individuals entering the legal profession. With awards of up to $7,500, the Diversity Scholarship alleviates the significant financial burden of attending law school, which can leave recent graduates more than $100,000 in debt, and provides confidence-boosting recognition to law students during the crucial first year of law school. Recipients, who come from communities underrepresented in the legal profession, are selected from a competitive pool of more than 250 applicants based on academic excellence, financial need and commitment to the community. 

The foundation’s Public Interest Scholarship recipients, who are nominated by their law schools and demonstrate a commitment to public service, academic excellence and financial need, receive scholarships of up to $7,500 to assist with tuition and related education expenses. This year's winners include aspiring environmental law specialists, grassroots activists, teachers, human rights advocates and students who have dedicated countless volunteer hours to various legal aid clinics and other nonprofit organizations. 

To help graduating law students with the cost of preparing for and taking the bar exam, the foundation also awards 15 scholarships to cover Bar/Bri Bar Review courses, now costing more than $3,500. The top five winners receive an additional $2,000 cash stipend. 

The foundation scholarships are funded by donations from private donors, mostly law firms, corporations and individual lawyers. Lawyers who want to give back to their profession should consider making a contribution to the bar foundation or similar organization in their home states. 

Much is being done by our profession to help applicants and law students — more than I’ve outlined here, including law school loan forgiveness programs and law firm programs deferring associates (in lieu of termination) while donating their services to local nonprofit legal services providers — but much more can and should be done to increase transparency in the law school admissions process and to give aid to students and newly minted lawyers who are suffering the effects of the current economic crisis.