When Women Carry Most Student Loan Debt, Is Law School An Option?

The student loan industry has been in crisis for the past several decades as the cost of higher education rapidly outstripped earnings growth and inflation – but the burden isn’t equally distributed. Rather, of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, women hold two-thirds of it, but are just 57% of the student population.

What’s happening to cause female students to land so deep in debt? There are several key causes, but in large part, the answers hinge on unequal distribution of childcare responsibilities and the wage gap. And women lawyers, most of whom have taken on enormous amounts of debt for their education, certainly aren’t exempt from this.

Think About Loans Before You Apply

For women who are considering law school but haven’t yet made the leap, it’s important to think about your student loan burden before you sign on for classes. Yes, you’re busy studying for the LSAT and gathering recommendation letters from professors, but the better you understand the expenses involved in law school before you’re accepted, the better your outcome will be. This is especially true if you aren’t aiming for a top-tier school.

The law field is unusually packed with applicants right now, in large part because many people used law school and other forms of graduate education as a way to avoid applying for jobs during the recession back in 2008. Unfortunately, that means many law school grads end up employed outside the field, or get low-level legal jobs that don’t pay much.

Employment issues in law mean that the common comparison that going to law school is like getting a mortgage – a good investment that will pay for itself once you’re out and employed – is a terrible analogy. Few lawyers, even when employment rates were better, make the kind of money that law school loans demand and you usually can’t get rid of these loans via bankruptcy proceedings. And the lawyers that make that kind of money are almost all men who’ve risen to be partners in big name firms. As of 2014, women made up fewer than a quarter of partners at major firms.

At least if you have a mortgage, selling back the house will pretty much take care of the debt. You can’t sell back law school, so you need to be certain about your direction and your prospects.

Understand Forgiveness Options

If you can’t wipe out student loans via bankruptcy and employment prospects are uncertain, at best, another question prospective law students should consider is what they want to do with their degree. Obviously, you’ll make more money as a corporate lawyer than in family law, and more money in family law than if you become a public defender. But your field of choice will also determine how – and if – you can pay back your loans.

What does that mean? Well, public defenders typically qualify for student loan forgiveness, but these public service forgiveness programs are basically 25-year-long debt settlement plans. You have to consistently make your payments on time for all those years before you qualify if you want that “forgiveness” at all.

Some states are working on developing a middle ground between being a public defender and working in private practice, while solving a community problem in the first place. In Wisconsin, private lawyers who take at least 50 rural public defender appointments per year will receive up to $20,000 toward their student loan debt. Since public defenders are scarce, especially in rural counties, this can improve client representation and boost your ability to pay back your loans, regardless of how your private practice career is going.

Know Your Options

Ultimately, assessing your options is an important part of paying back your loans, so make a five-year plan. Want to have kids? Consider doing that during your loan grace period when you don’t have to make payments, then start your job search in the later months of that grace period. And don’t forget to ask about income-based repayment. If you wind up in a low paying position, you don’t want to be asked to pay back your loan at the same rates as someone who joined a major urban firm.

Whether you’re terrified by the prospect of student loan debt or already struggling to pay them back, you aren’t alone. In fact, 15 lawsuits are accusing law schools of inflating their employment rates to attract students, ultimately leaving them burdened with high debt and a nearly useless degree – many may not even pass the bar. While this accounts for only a small number of graduates, the risks are real. You must have a plan for how to manage your loans, no matter your post-law school employment situation.

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