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In 1966, the University of Michigan Law School began an annual survey of selected classes of its graduates. Beginning in the early 1980s, annual surveys of those five and fifteen years after law school included questions about educational debts incurred during college and law school as well as about career plans at the beginning and end of law school and actual job held in the years since law school. This paper, written in 2009, examines the possible effects of debts on career decisions and job choices made before, during and after law school by the graduating classes of 1976 through 2001.

Our central findings are these: Throughout the period studied, a substantial proportion of each graduating classes has recalled entering law school with a long-term plan to practice in government, legal services for the poor or “public interest” law (what I refer to collectively as “public service”), but of those who arrive with such a plan many abandon the plan by the end of law school. Despite this, there is little evidence, at least through the early classes of the 21st century, that educational debt contributed significantly to law students’ abandonment of public-service plans during law school. It seems likely that other factors, related but separable, contributed much more. Those other factors included the growing availability to Michigan’s graduates of jobs in large law firms, the prestige, mobility and high salaries associated with large firms, and the increasing gap between large firm salaries and those in public-service settings. The paper also reports, however, that among those who still had longterm plans of public service at the end of law school, debt probably cause a significant number of them to postpone entry into public service work and to work initially in higher-paying settings.

A second paper by Chambers, The Increasing Reliance on Educational Loans by University of Michigan Law Graduates, is also available on this website. It tracks the great changes over time in the ways Michigan students have paid for their legal education and particularly the huge increase in borrowing as the primary method of payment. It also reports on the difficulties graduates report in paying off their loans. Because the amounts borrowed by law students increased enormously in the years after 2001 (the last graduating class included in this paper), great caution must be taken in extrapolating from the findings here to the situations of law school graduates today.