Torontonian Flora Vineberg is starting her first year at University of British Columbia law school in September with what she calls “modest savings.” By the time she graduates, savings of any kind will be a distant memory.
Instead, she expects be juggling a residual $100,000 in law school debt.
Vineberg should probably count herself as one of the lucky ones. The most recent projections from the non-profit organization Law School Transparency, which informs prospective law students of the value of a US law degree, are staggering. They show that Vineberg’s American cohorts will graduate with an average of $210,796 in student debt.
The Law Society of Upper Canada released a report in 2008 that placed the average law school debt at $45,246. Tuition has been creeping up since then and, it’s fair to assume, so have debt loads. Several people estimate the average law school debt in Canada today is closer to $60,000.
It wasn’t long ago that a law degree was seen as a ticket to the good life. Now it’s more likely to be seen as a ticket to years of payments.
Vineberg, 29, has carefully planned her budget. She figures that -- between tuition, books, student fees, rent, transportation, food and two trips a year between Vancouver and Toronto -- her law degree will cost $35,000 annually.
One of the first things she did after learning she was accepted is to arrange for available government help (in her case, the Ontario Student Assistance Program) as well as a line of credit. Even then, she says, it’s difficult.
“You can get up to $20,000 a year through the student line of credit, but it also requires a co-signer, so your debt becomes somebody else’s burden as well,” she says. “On top of that, as soon as you start using your student line of credit, you automatically have to make monthly interest payments.
“So what ends up happening is, you have to use your government-issued student loans to pay their monthly costs, so you’re using loans to pay for loans.”
Vineberg says that, while running up debt to become a lawyer is frighteningly easy, scoring an entry-level articling spot is becoming more challenging.
“When I first started thinking about law school six years ago, it seemed being a lawyer was a glorified profession; there were lots of jobs for articling student. Now it seems just getting an articling position is almost as difficult, if not more difficult, than getting a job afterwards.
“It’s scary. I plan to go into the human-rights field, where traditionally they don’t pay as much, unless you get one of the high-profile clerkships or articling positions in the international area. How can someone with $100,000 in debt get a mortgage and all the other regular stuff? I definitely think about it.”
Brian Tamanaha, the William Gardiner Hammond Professor of Law at Washington University, says new law students like Vineberg should be worried. He says the economics of a legal education are broken.
Tamanaha, who just published Failing Law Schools
, a book that examines this issue, says 30 years of constant tuition increases means students from middle-class families “are being priced out of the legal profession.”
At the same time, he says, the legal market has cracked into two hemispheres. The first is made up of corporate lawyers and the second of lawyers who work for individuals or small governments and practice in areas such as family law, human-rights law, municipal law or criminal law.
He predicts many in the second group are going to find their income after graduation won’t be enough to allow them to pay off the amount of debt they have been forced to take on.
“Salaries have gone up at the high end of the corporate legal market, but stagnated at the low end or gone down when you factor in the rate of inflation,” says Tamanaha. “Part of the reason is that, at the same time law schools are raising tuition, they’ve been expanding enrollment. We’ve created an oversupply of lawyers.
“So only the students from the best schools -- or the best students from the less prestigious schools -- get into the corporate market. Everyone else scrambles in the other market.”
That is to some extent true in Canada as well. But where tuition at a top-tier US law school like Columbia can exceed US$45,000 a year, tuition here is significantly lower.
According to Oxford Seminars Law School Profiles, it ranges from a little over $7,300 a year at University of Windsor and just over $9,000 a year at universities like McGill and UBC to over $25,000 a year at the University of Toronto.
Even with lower tuition in Canada, and with a job in Tamanaha’s “first hemisphere” of corporate law, debt is a concern for many starting lawyers.
Luiz Bihari, an articling student at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, graduated from the University of Toronto law school $60,000 in the hole. With a position at a top corporate firm, he has the financial stability to start paying down his student loans. Bihari, 29, says, “It’s something I worry about but something I’m able to manage.
“But I think my position is not necessarily the position of the majority of recent law school graduates. I know a lot of people who have struggled. … I know people who've had even higher levels of debt.”
Like everyone else who works in law, he’s been hearing talk of the consolidating legal market and client pushback against paying to train junior lawyers. He’s read about articling positions becoming more scarce.
“That’s something that’s been attracting a lot of attention. People definitely worry about it. That’s something students talk about -- you not only want to finish school but make sure that you’re able to fulfill all your requirements to be a lawyer.
“For anyone’s who is considering going to law school, knowing whether there is even going to be a legal market out there for you is something you definitely have to take into consideration when you’re thinking whether to invest $60,000 into a law degree.”
Bihari says students today who want to get in to law school may need to finance another degree just to ensure they are accepted. He says that, as the profession is becoming more competitive, “law schools are becoming more competitive as well.
“It’s important for people to continue from undergraduate level and do MBAs and also masters degrees sometimes just to get into law school. Student loans can really add up. I have a lot of friends who, even though they are working at good, well-paying jobs on Bay Street, still definitely struggle. If they have dependents, then the burden is even higher.”
Marketta Jokinen, Director of Professional Recruitment in the Vancouver office of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, says prospective law students have been asking more questions about shrinking jobs ever since the global financial crisis.
“Before then, it was a bit more of a student market. It was a good time to be looking for a job. Since then, students have been asking more of these kinds of questions.”
As for what advice does she give them? Simple: “Don’t let what you’re reading scare you off. Do the research for the market you hope to work in one day, see whether what you’re hearing about the North American market applies there.
"If it’s something you really want to do, something you feel passionate about, opportunities will be there for you. It’s an investment in your financial future.”