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At debt’s doorstep

New law grads leaving school with degrees, big loan paybacks

Anyone considering law school should take an unflinching look at themselves and what they hope to do with a law degree, experts say. Enticements for those considering a law school education remain as strong as ever, despite the worst job market for lawyers since the mid-1990s and declining salaries for new lawyers.

That said, law school can be a good investment if you’re committed to putting your degree to use, say admission officials at Virginia law schools.

The lure of legal education is especially strong because of easy loan money. Despite the downturn in the legal marketplace, student loan dollars flow unchecked.

“The money hasn’t dried up, that’s clear,” said James E. Moliterno, law professor at Washington & Lee University and a frequent writer on legal education.

Would-be lawyers are all too willing to accept loans for law school tuition, Moliterno said. “I think they don’t see the money as real money until they have to start paying it back.”

Among Virginia law schools, Regent University turns out law grads carrying the most debt, according to figures from U.S. News & World Report. Ninety percent of the 2010 Regent law grads emerged with loans to pay, owing an average of $115,734.

The University of Virginia was next, with an average indebtedness of $107, 384.

Appalachian School of Law was tops in the percentage of grads carrying debt – 95 percent. But those ASL grads had average debt loads of only $59,071 – the lowest in the state.

The sobering numbers reinforce the need to consider law school with eyes wide open, said Brian R. Wall, assistant dean in the office of admissions at the College of William & Mary law school.

“Education in any sense of the word is an investment, and it can be a risky investment,” Wall said. The question for a prospective law student is whether he or she will be in a better position with a law degree than without. “That’s one of those decisions people have to make for themselves,” Wall said.

“It’s still better than coming out with a bachelor’s degree,” noted Michelle Rahman, associate dean for admissions at the University of Richmond law school. “You can do so many things with a law degree. It still is a good investment in our view.”

Acknowledging that cost is driving the law school decision far more than it did five to 10 years ago, Brett Twitty, director of admissions at Washington & Lee law school, said the more critical analysis by prospective students will help improve legal education in general. “It’s good for the profession, it’s good for law schools,” he said.

With law school applications down 11 percent nationwide, Twitty said there are fewer good people for law schools to choose from. “There is more competition between law schools to land really well credentialed candidates,” he said.

Moliterno, the W&L professor, recently penned an essay calling for improvements in legal education, pointing to the third-year law practice curriculum he helped develop at W&L.

“We should be more transparent, no doubt about it,” he said. “But we’ve got to put out a better product.”

Candidates may be looking harder at their law school decisions, but it’s not all doom and gloom at the dean’s offices. UR’s Rahman said her school has seen a 44 percent increase in applications, even while the national numbers declined. “I don’t think in Virginia people are doing a lot of hand wringing,” she said.

Besides the ready availability of law student loans, Moliterno sees other factors driving the unabated demand for a legal education. Some undergraduates choose to ride out the sagging job market in graduate school, hoping to find brighter prospects when they finally emerge from academia. Also, he says, some law schools have lured applicants with inflated figures on graduate employment.

Moliterno blames both the American Bar Association and the law schools themselves for the furor over padded employment stats. The ABA, he said, allowed skewed numbers from law schools, such as percentages based on a small sample of alumni who responded to a survey request.

Even with increasing awareness of the grim prospects for employment, Moliterno notes classes are still full – “The market doesn’t seem to work perfectly well in this arena,” he said.

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