A Double-Edged Sword: Student Loan Debt Provides Access to a Law Degree but May Ultimately Deny a Bar License

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



financial barriers, bar passage, character and fitness


The Character and Fitness assessment has been criticized by bar applicants, bar members, and scholars because of its arbitrary and unpredictable admission standards. Like many aspects of the legal profession, the Character and Fitness assessment has not evolved to reflect current economic and social trends, as student loans are an integral and pervasive tool for many to attend law school. Thus, basing the determination of an applicant's character and fitness on the concept of financial irresponsibility is an antiquated approach; the process must evolve to accurately reflect the current legal market.

Due to the increasing costs and grim financial prospects associated with the pursuit of a law degree, reform is necessary in each state's perception of student debt as a factor in a Character and Fitness assessment, specifically the applicant's financial irresponsibility determination. Since the 1980s, law school tuition has risen dramatically; from 1983 to 2008, for example, law school tuition rose at least two times faster than the inflation rate. Between 2001 and 2013, the number of established law schools in the United States rose by nine percent. Moreover, in 2012, average tuition at private law schools was $40,585 and the average in-state tuition for public law schools was $23,590. This rise in price means that as of early 2013, the average law school graduate could expect to graduate with debt near or exceeding $100,000, not including any debt that he or she accumulated as an undergraduate student...The ABA recognizes that attending law school can be a financial burden for law students who fail to carefully consider "the financial implications of their decisions."

Part I of this Article evaluates the bar admissions process, with a specific focus on the Character and Fitness assessment and the considerations that are taken into account by a Character and Fitness Committee before it issues a finding of financial irresponsibility. Part II discusses the Loan Repayment Assistance Programs ("LRAPs") that are in place at the state and federal, and which are also offered by many law schools. It argues that these programs are insufficient to address the large amounts of debt that law students can accumulate during the pursuit of a law degree. Part III further explores whether a legal education is a wise investment based on the abundance of misreported and misunderstood salary and employment statistics supplied by some law schools, student debt concerns, and the various tactics employed by some law schools to encourage prospective law students to obtain a law degree. Part IV analyzes the class action suits that law schools have faced because of the alleged misrepresentation in employment and salary data for former and current law students. Finally, Part V considers possible reforms that bar admissions boards should adopt to treat student loan debt separately from a determination of financial irresponsibility that adapts to meet the demands of twenty-first century lawyers.