In 2011, private law school graduates had an average debt of $125,000. Last year, John Marshall in Chicago received the dubious honor of being named among the most debt-inducing law schools in the country: Graduates left the school owing an average of $136,486.
Amy Cramer’s debt tops both figures by a wide margin, though. Getting her JD from John Marshall nearly two years ago put her $250,000 in the red.
No less worse, Cramer hasn’t found a full-time job since she left the school, even though she finished at the top 30% of her class. Having sent scores of applications out, she says bluntly: “I honestly don’t think that anyone’s looked at my resume. I think that the number of people who have looked at my resume and even sent me something back, saying, ‘No, we didn’t choose you,’ essentially, is so slim that—I’ve had two interviews since I graduated. Two interviews.”
At John Marshall, Cramer obtained an advanced law certification for the sake of gaining specialized expertise: an LL.M. in employee benefits. Unfortunately, instead of giving her more options, it’s simply given her more debt. “I was certainly led to believe that employee benefits was the wave of the future with Obamacare, and that people would be knocking down my door to get me to work for them,” Cramer says. “And that has not happened. I don’t know if it’s a matter of time, but I don’t see those jobs out there for Obamacare, and so that has certainly been a disappointment.”
It’s not that the 28-year-old has been idly waiting for opportunities. Quite the opposite: “I’ve been networking for over two years, and the stars still haven’t aligned for me,” she says. Shortly after graduation, she landed an $18-an-hour contract job as an employee benefits consultant at JPMorgan Chase, but that ended in October. She now volunteers at a legal hotline while she looks for full-time work.
Without a permanent position, Cramer hasn’t been able to even chip at her loans. “When I was contracting and doing temporary work, I still didn’t make enough to even begin to pay any back because I’m on income-based repayment (IBR),” she says. The interest adds up to about $20,000 each year. “It’s very scary,” she admits. “But the great thing about IBR is that after 25 or 30 [years], they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re done. You gave it your best shot.’”
But three decades of debt is no joke.
SWEPT INTO LAW BY THE EXCITEMENT OVER OBAMA’S ELECTION
With the facts and figures laid out like that, Cramer’s decision to attend law school seems completely irrational. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider it in context: Today’s law school applicants get bombarded with stories of staggering debt, unemployment, and general malaise, but the subjects of these stories are often people like Cramer herself—people who applied to law schools just a few years before the horror stories became commonplace.
The Chicago resident was a high school English teacher when she decided to switch careers. “I wanted to help people in a different way, and I thought, ‘What’s the ticket to doing that?’” she says. “For me, I thought it was becoming an attorney.”
At the time, the dialogue surrounding law schools had a very different flavor. “I applied in 2008, right around the election,” Cramer recalls. “It seemed that in Chicago, there was a certain buzz that politically, we were the center of the world—like, D.C. and Chicago—because of Obama. The fact that he was a lawyer—there was definitely a buzz of excitement about that.”
‘JOHN MARSHALL PRODUCES DOGFIGHTERS’
Cramer targeted just one school: John Marshall. “I really was attracted to the fact that it was one of the first schools to allow African-Americans and women to take classes, and that was important to me at the time,” she says. Though she knew it “wasn’t the University of Chicago,” she was happy to enroll at an institution with a reputation for practicality. When she describes the image that drew her in, it’s easy to see its scruffy appeal: “John Marshall doesn’t produce academics,” she says. “They produce dogfighters. You know, people who were going to walk in that courtroom and argue zealously for their client. They know the federal rules, and they know the Illinois rules. Real attorneys in the most Gregory Peck sense of the word.”
But that image hasn’t matched her reality yet. “I got a fantastic education at John Marshall,” Cramer says. “It just so happens that they are the low guy on the totem poll.” (“You can’t tell me that property class at Northwestern is that much different from the property class at John Marshall,” she later quipped.)