Average law graduate debt in 2011 at both Thomas Jefferson and California Western topped $153,000. In 2012, Thomas Jefferson graduates had average debt of $168,800. Listed below are the twenty law schools with the highest average debt for the graduating class of 2012--followed in bold by the percentage of the graduating class of 2011 that landed full time jobs as lawyers (at least one year duration) within nine months of graduation (employment data from 2011 are reported because 2012 "JD required" data are still unavailable and the difference between these two years will be small):
Thomas Jefferson $168,800 (26.7%)
California Western $167,867 (39.3%)
Phoenix School of Law $162,627 (37.4%)
Northwestern University $156,791 (77%)
New York Law School $154,647 (35.5%)
American University $152,659 (35.8%)
New York University $149,336 (90.1%)
Southwestern $147,976 (34.6%)
Georgetown $146,169 (62.6%)
Whittier $143,536 (17.1%)
Florida Coastal $143,111 (36.6%)
John Marshall (Chi.) $142,587 (43.4%)
John Marshall (Atl.) $142,515 (40.9%)
Catholic (D.C.) $142,115 (43.7%)
Loyola Marymount L.A. $141,936 (42.7%)
Columbia $141,607 (94.1%)
Charleston L.S. $141,457 (51.3%)
Pacific (McGeorge) $140,566 (43.6%)
Univ. Miami $140,032 (55.1%)
Cornell $140,000 (76.1%)
These numbers substantially understate the actual debt carried by law students on graduation day, I must emphasize, because they only include debt taken out while in law school. Undergraduate debt (average $25,000) and interest accrued on law school debt, which at these levels can exceed $10,000, must be added on top.
Making these extraordinary debt levels all the worse, at the majority of law schools on this list less than half the class obtained full time lawyer jobs. Although certain non-lawyer positions can be desirable, I use the "JD required" employment statistic not only because that is the primary goal for people who attend law school, but also because only corporate law jobs pay enough to manage debt levels this high (or public service jobs with debt forgiveness). The strong preference for lawyer jobs is borne out by the fact that graduates of top law schools take "JD required" jobs 90% plus of the time (a pattern which holds for at least the past decade).
A few examples will make the above 2011 employment data more concrete: at Whittier, among 123 total graduates, only 21 secured full time jobs as lawyers; 63 out of 236 Thomas Jefferson graduates landed full time lawyer positions; at New York Law School, only 185 out of 515 graduates landed full time lawyer jobs. Poor results are not limited to low ranked law schools. At American, only 167 out of 467 graduates obtained full time lawyer jobs; Loyola Marymount saw only 172 out of 403 graduates land full time jobs as lawyers. (All figures are for jobs with at least one year duration).
Not only are many graduates from law schools on this list not landing full time jobs as lawyers, at lower ranked law schools even the fortunate graduates who get lawyer jobs do not earn enough to manage the standard monthly loan payments, which at these debt levels range from $1,700 to $2,000, and up. The bulk of graduates from low ranked law schools with lawyer jobs work in firms of 2-10, which typically pay between $40,000 and $60,000. This is not enough to manage the monthly loan payments even on the extended 25 year repayment plan. Thousands of law school graduates will be forced by financial necessity to enter IBR, a federal program designed to assist graduates in "partial financial hardship." (I will post a paper analyzing the implications of IBR shortly.)
Law graduate debt has been increasing by remarkable amounts on a yearly basis: going up at private law schools from $92,000 in 2009, to $106,000 in 2010, to $125,000 in 2011. Average debt figures for private law grads in 2012 (when compiled) will likely exceed $130,000, and average debt for public law grads, which has also gone up rapidly, will likely reach $80,000. Again, these figures do not count undergraduate debt and accrued interest.
One last piece of bad news: the upcoming JD graduating class of 2013 will be the largest ever, with the highest debt ever, flooding into a dismal job market.