Life Beyond Private Law School Debt

Life Beyond Private Law School Debt
Jennifer A. Brobst, J.D., LL.M., Class of 1996

As an alumna, I have considered writing this letter to USD law students for many years, but find it much more palatable now that I can say I have finally paid off my student loans. To those kind law students who call me up to ask for donations to USD, to whom I have replied, “I’m not giving anything until I’ve paid off my student debt!” – I apologize for causing you additional stress.  I graduated from USD Law in 1996, and happened to be the Chair of the Board of Motions at one point.  At the time I recall our board actually had to make a First Amendment constitutional law argument to the administration to keep publishing the paper, due to some controversies over content.  Now I am glad to see the paper is alive and well, full of content and images, and even published online, which is quite a few steps ahead of anything we could have produced twenty years ago.  I mention this because I notice that the USD Law School education has clearly improved in many areas, from the breadth of faculty publications to consistent increases in law school rankings.  However, what has not improved in the last 20 years is the tremendous burden of student loan debt required to complete a law school degree at a private institution like USD.

As an attorney from Generation X, a disgruntled generation known for our skepticism and a desire to be left alone, I and others in my 1990s cohort were some of the first who took out the $90,000 in student loans to become lawyers.  We quietly suffered, and there was no whisper in the media of the possibility of a bail out.  At the time I applied to law school, as the first in my middle class family to obtain a professional degree, I admit that I assumed almost all doctors and lawyers made a lot of money.  Keep in mind this was not the Information Age with easily available statistics on job prospects.  I chose USD because it seemed like a solid ABA accredited legal institution, and with my family circumstances I had to live in San Diego.  If I could have gone to a lower cost state university, I would have – that much I knew.  I have never been unhappy with the education I received at USD, and felt sufficiently prepared.  I passed the bar exam in California, and then as I moved passed the bar in Indiana and North Carolina on my first tries there as well.

In the first years after law school graduation my student loan debt increased 33% until I was in debt for over $120,000 – the price of a small house in most parts of the country.  In fact, because of my student debt I have never been able to afford to buy a house.  I tell people I own a house outright – it’s called my law school education – because I did eventually manage to pay it off.  So how did I do it?

My first jobs were in public interest – working at a child advocacy center as a street law educator in schools, as an assistant district attorney, and as a training institute director in a state nonprofit addressing sexual assault victimization.  In those first 10 ten years of work, I also had two children and each time I was the one who stayed home and was unemployed for a short period of time, taking advantage of deferments and forbearances.  My debt increased of course with compound interest, and in the good years my low salary allowed me to break even with my payments.

Eventually I became a single parent, still working in the nonprofit world, but this level of independence was a major turning point for me.  Today it is common knowledge that student loan debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, but few discuss that student loan debt is not divided between parties in the event of a divorce.  As I was the one with the private school debt, the entirety of that debt remained with me.  However, I never saw that as a problem.  I agree with the legal policy on this – I was the only one who could benefit from the education, so I should bear the whole cost.  I mention this because I feel strongly that law students should understand that they cannot rely on others to help them pay off their higher education debt.  It is a personal responsibility and legal obligation.

With greater maturity and job experience ten years out of law school, and an LLM degree overseas in the midst of it where I worked as an adjunct professor to help defray the costs, I found that I could now more easily obtain a position both rewarding and higher paid.  I used the varied public interest experience that I had gained to become hired as a visiting clinical professor at a law school in my area, focusing on domestic violence. Before tuning out, assuming that it was just a lucky break to get a law school faculty position, know that I also finally got bites from better paying jobs in government and private practice at this time. Careers naturally build over time, and the benefits do eventually emerge.

The wisest strategy I put into place at this time was that I did not change my standard of living.  I still did not have cable TV, internet, newspapers, expensive haircuts or clothes, new cars, or vacations.  I raised my children quietly and worked hard, and every extra penny went into paying off my student loans in very large amounts.  Over the next eight years I had paid off my debt entirely, reaching my personal goal of paying off my own loans in full before either of my children entered college.  If this sounds extreme, I can say that it did not feel extreme at the time.  I did not miss any of the comforts I had been accustomed to, growing up in a middle class family in the 1980s – a house, swimming pool, better clothes, vacations.  I often thought fondly of my grandparents, who lived through the Depression as young adults, living happily enough on very little.

Today I am entering a new phase and moving again to a tenure-track faculty position in health law in Illinois.  I have no debt, and enough money to help my kids enter college.  I might even buy a house.  I can’t say that I have not had a chip on my shoulder from knowing that I make a higher salary than many before me who could live much better on much less.  However, I can say it is possible without a government bailout to work long enough, hard enough and strategically enough to pay off private law school debt, with some luck of course.  So, to all of you hardworking law school students with massive private law school debt, I wish you the very best of luck, and suspect you may not really need it.

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