By Matt Walker
After three years of intense learning, work and determination, law school graduates enjoy a wide array of career options — from the many specialties offered by law fi rms, to academia, public service, nonprofi ts or other alternative careers.
Well, that’s the idea anyway.
The reality is that many law students in the United States end their three-year journey saddled with a pile of debt they must carry into their careers, leaving them with signifi cantly fewer practical options.
“High tuitions at many law schools have produced very high debt loads for many graduates and this has forced those graduates to look at particular post-graduation employment opportunities because of the diffi culty — the impossibility in some instances — of paying back the debts with certain kinds of jobs,” UF Law Dean Robert Jerry said.
Law students who graduated in 2011 carried an average debt of $100,433, according to U.S. News & World Report. And the National Association for Law Placement pegs the employment rate for new law grads at 87.6 percent, the lowest since 1996. With high debt and reduced job prospects, recent graduates are feeling the pressure.
It’s an area where the University of Florida Levin College of Law offers a clear advantage.
According to American Bar Association data, in 2010, UF Law students borrowed far less than the national average reporting the sixth lowest debt load among the top 50 law schools. Considering in-state tuition and fees alone, the discrepancy is even greater. Private law school tuition and fees are often more than double that of UF Law and most public schools also are more costly.
Jerry put it this way: “Students can leave UF Law with much more freedom to pursue the careers they are passionate about instead of pursuing a career to pay off loans.”
Joe Joyce (JD 11) and Jackie Jo Brinson (JD 10) are fl esh-and-blood beneficiaries of these statistics. Joyce’s first love at UF Law was Brinson. His second love was trial law, thanks to Legal Skills Professor Jennifer Zedalis.
But when Joyce graduated from law school it wasn’t clear if he would get to remain close to either love. But because his debts were manageable, Joyce found himself in court on his second day on the job as a defense attorney in the 3rd Circuit Public Defender’s Offi ce. And his Live Oak, Fla., office is a stone’s throw from Brinson’s where she works as a trial court law clerk. “In terms of value, I think (UF Law) should be among tops in the country,” Joyce said. “With the tuition rates being what they are — if you go to a private school you’re looking at paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year for a legal education. At UF, you get the best legal education in the state for about half the money of what you would at a private school.”
The 2011-2012 in-state tuition at UF Law is $18,709.80 for 30 credit hours . And while not insignifi cant, the $62,000 average borrowing by UF Law students is among the lowest for students at fi rst-tier law schools. Along with landing the job he wanted, Joyce was able to stay close to Brinson — choices the deeply indebted might not be able to make.
“What really won me over about this job is that they let you step in on day one and they say ‘Listen, you’re an attorney. Do what attorneys do; interview your client, listen to their concerns, investigate the situation, negotiate the best resolution. Look out for your client’s interest and if necessary, you go to bat for that client at trial,’” Joyce said. “My supervisors mentor me while still giving me a great deal of independence.”
Joyce has some student loans, but working at the Public Defender’s Offi ce allowed him to approach Brinson’s parents for permission to marry their daughter without seeming like he would be a potential fi nancial burden on her. “Once I got this job I was able to propose,” he said. “For that, I feel so blessed.”
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