Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thies: Law school debt 'unsustainable' over long term

CHAMPAIGN ? Today's law school students, on average, face a debt load of about $100,000 for legal education, the president of the Illinois State Bar Association said.

That figure, John Thies said, doesn't include debt they may have incurred as a result of undergraduate education.

Speaking at the University of Illinois College of Law on Tuesday, Thies told students that their counterparts over the next 10 to 15 years will probably face similar challenges.

But over the long term, that kind of debt for legal education is "unsustainable," given salaries in the profession.

Jobs that pay enough to satisfy the debt payments aren't forthcoming, he said.

"I don't see salaries changing," Thies said. "What's got to change is cost."

Thies, a shareholder in the Urbana law firm of Webber & Thies, said he didn't think law school could very well be cut from three years to two.

But he suggested "significant changes" could be made to the third year to help make students "practice-ready."

Upon becoming president of the state bar association, Thies created a task force to report on what effect law school debt is having on the delivery of legal services in Illinois.

For example, small law firms ? those with fewer than 10 employees ? may not be able to afford people who have to pay off high law school debt.

The task force scheduled five hearings around the state and heard testimony from 50 witnesses, he said. Now it's drafting a report on what can be done, both short and long term, to make a difference.

One student in the audience reported hearing a story of someone still paying off law school debt from 1993.

Thies said he didn't doubt that. He said some have described law school debt as "the mortgage for a house I can't live in" and "the debt I'll die with."

One student asked why, if law school costs are so high, aren't fewer students applying to law school.

Thies said applications to law schools have dropped substantially the last two years.

He said the nation "may have too many law schools." But he dismissed any notion that there are too many lawyers or law students, saying there's "a tremendous need" for legal services.

When asked what reforms law schools should make, Thies said he didn't want to pre-empt the task force's recommendations. But he said arrangements could be made to match law school students with "aging baby-boomers" in private practice so the young lawyers can eventually take over the practice.

He also said law schools could do a better job facilitating internships and externships for students, recognizing that many students can't afford to serve unpaid.

Separately, Thies said the bar association has launched a two-week food and fundraising campaign for eight regional food banks in Illinois, with the goal of providing 1 million meals for the hungry.

As of Tuesday, the "Lawyers Feeding Illinois" campaign had raised enough for 352,000 meals.


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