We need a catchy but respectable name for these organizations; maybe the commenters can brainstorm one. For now, let's just call the groups "Professionals for Financial Responsibility." You may still be students, but you're also professionals; that's what we tell you on the first day of law school. These groups would form at individual law schools, then unite in a national association.
What would these organizations do? Under the general banner of promoting financial responsibility in legal education, they could do the following and more:
- Request more detailed information from their own schools about debt load, job prospects, and post-JD salaries. If requests like this come from official student organizations devoted to financial responsibility, it will be awkward for schools to deny these requests. We're not suggesting that schools will immediately release more information, but it's difficult to take a stand against "financial responsibility." That's even more difficult when a group has posters and other public displays in the building (more on that below).
- Collect relevant information directly from students and alumni. As some commenters have suggested, a student organization probably could collect information about loan balances from other students.
- Promote awareness among faculty about the mismatch between the cost of legal education and its pay-off. There may already be a sympathetic faculty member or two lurking at each school. And many schools will undertake strategic planning or other introspection in response to this year's declining class sizes. It would be great to have a student group devoted specifically to the issues of cost as those discussions proceed.
- Network with alumni and bar associations about how to increase financial responsibility in legal education. At least some alumni, as you can tell from this blog, are sympathetic on these issues. Many of them have their own law school debts; most would prefer schools to graduate fewer lawyers. Alumni and bar associations do have some leverage with law schools--student advocacy could help focus that leverage on the issues of financial responsibility.
- Advocate to the ABA, Department of Education, state supreme courts, and other relevant groups for actions that will curb the ability of law schools to raise tuition in such an unrestrained manner. Many proposals for reform have already emerged on this blog and in other venues. A national league of student organizations--with the backing of some alumni, faculty, and other supporters--could give greater voice to those proposals. LST has managed to gain an important voice in these discussions; the new law student organizations could add another voice.
- Educate potential students about the financial challenges of law school. Many universities have initiatives devoted to "financial wellness" among their undergraduates. I've even heard of schools that ask law students to mentor undergrads, advising them on how to live on a budget, avoid credit card debt, etc. Ironically, these initiatives don't focus on the financial risks of higher education itself. These law school organizations could perform that role, linking with pre-law advisors on campus and at other feeder colleges. (You can also see in the comments the interest of some pre-law advisors in the issues we discuss here.)
- Push for small, but significant, steps like the creation of debt calculators on the school's website and the disclosure of still more employment information. E.g., what exactly are those JD preferred jobs? As the legal market continues to shift each year, we will need ever greater transparency.
- Provide support for students who are confronting their own mounting debt and job-hunting challenges. Talking about law schools' tuition hunger is a double-edged sword: It's necessary to advance change, but can also depress students. These groups could help assuage some of that anxiety. Misery prefers relief, but sometimes company helps.
- Protect student/graduate interests in the national debate on the debt issue. If Congress revokes IBR, someone needs to advocate for the graduates who have started down that path--as well as for the students lured to law school by deans' promises of the IBR golden path.
Why, finally, a student organization? Gaining formal status as an organization gives student groups significant rights on many campuses: meeting space, bulletin boards, campus funding (ah, those student activity fees), tables at orientation and admitted student open-houses (wouldn't you like to explain debt and job prospects to those admitted students?), and the ability to seek information in-house. Alumni could certainly participate in these organizations, and would be invited to do so, but student status gives the groups a special position.
Someone has got to stand up for financial responsibility in legal education. The schools, ABA, and government aren't doing it; students might have the right voice here. Please make suggestions and criticisms in the comments to refine this idea--we'd like to help create a real vehicle for interested students and alumni to work on these issues.