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ABA Mulls Law School Debt Counseling

To cover three years of tuition and books at St. John’s University School of Law on Long Island, Stephen Preziosi took on $75,000 in student loans and lived at home with his parents.

“There were no other options at the time,” Preziosi told Big Law Business. “Scholarships were limited.”

He graduated in 1999, and is now an appellate lawyer in Manhattan, but is still paying back his loans — which look small compared to what most graduates now face: The cost of law school has ballooned and today, the average graduate leaves with $122,158 in debt for a private school education and $84,000 for graduates of public schools, according to 2012 data from the American Bar Association.

Student debt is receiving new attention after a 15-member ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education released a report in June that contains several proposed resolutions that calls for enhanced financial counseling for students on loan and repayment programs. In August, the American Bar Association House of Delegates plans to take action on several proposed resolutions that recommend law schools provide more debt counseling and financial transparency for current and prospective law students. None of the proposals, however, specify exactly how this debt counseling should take place or make it mandatory.

“The task force concluded that it’s important for laws schools to give an explanation to students about what student loan debt means in the long run,” said Dennis Archer, former president of the ABA.

He blamed much of the problem on the economy and the reduction in most states’ support to colleges and universities, which has lead to a reduction in the amount of funds available for many law schools. 

“Tuition has increased,” said Archer, “especially for those colleges and universities that are state supported.”

Stephen Daniels, a consultant who drafted the report for the ABA’s Task Force, said the report did not recommend specific ways, such as debt counseling offices or mandatory presentations that students are required to attend, because of cost and other practical factors. Instead, Daniels said the idea was that law schools would experiment and find solutions that work best for each school.

In addition to debt counseling, the task force called for wider collection and publication of law-school financial data and that encourage “innovation” to lower costs for law students.

Some law schools are looking for ways to reduce student costs through online classes or abbreviated terms of study: William Mitchell College of the Law in St. Paul is experimenting with a hybrid law degree where some but not all class work is online; and Northwestern Law is now offering an accredited juris doctorate where students can secure a three year degree in just two years.

“A professional education will never be cheap,” Daniels said. “The idea is to innovate and explore ways to make it more accessible and less expensive so that law school students are not accumulating so much debt.”