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Law student debts contribute to gender disparity, study says

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By Urbi Khan

A new study from Ryerson University and the University of Pennsylvania found that student debt from law school can negatively influence career choices and partner prospects for female lawyers.

Economists Yu Wang and Holger Sieg, who conducted the study, found that female law students with more student debt stay longer in private sector jobs, are more likely to postpone marriage, marry people with lower earnings and delay childbearing.

The study only focuses on law students, but the economists believe that the research could be applied to other public career sectors such as business and medicine.

“Student debt has become a very severe issue,” said Wang. “There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence saying that people are burdened with student debt, however that does not explain why people are burdened. Therefore, we needed concrete evidence.”

Focus on student debt 

Wang said that she and Sieg embarked on this research project for fours years with a special focus on law students to better understand the evolution of debt, it’s impact on the quality of life for individuals and on the economy.

The economists chose to focus on law students as the data they collected followed lawyers with student debt for 12 years after they had graduated from law school. They found that other public career sectors did not have much information or the length of data necessary to paint an entire picture for the economists.

The information in the study was collected from two sets of data. The first set is from the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement, called “After JD” which followed 12 years of employment for a “nationally representative number of lawyers” across the U.S. The second set of data was collected from the U.S. Department of Education, which focused on financial aid for students.

According to Wang, the data was meaningful because it showed a clear impact of student debt on the lawyers’ lives as time wore on. The data showed significant differences between students who take out debt to those who do not.

 “We wanted to find out what type of life outcomes lawyers have because of student debt,” she said. 

Women in law more likely to take high intensity jobs 

In the study, the economists found a correlation: female lawyers with student debt are more likely to work in private law firms, which are prioritized because of how well they pay. This means women may work  more hours, leading to more stress.

“Women lawyers often have to take on high intensity jobs because they need to pay back their debt load but in the end, they cannot keep up with the pressure of high intensity jobs while balancing home life with work,” said Wang.

She also said in America, where ivy league colleges are the norm for law schools, men who go to law school are often supported financially by their family, whereas female students are more likely not to be. In relation to Canada, there are many more private schools in the U.S. and therefore, student debts are generally lower in Canada.

More research is needed into how student debt affects law students in Canada but according to Wang, it can be inferred that the “same outcome can be true for Canada and its disadvantaged group but to a lesser extent” than America.

Quality of life for law students affected by debt

Nathan Fisler, a second year law student with a philosophy specialist at the University of Toronto (U of T), said he believes that student debt can affect the quality of life after graduation from law school.

“A lot of law students have the mindset that they are just going to go to downtown Toronto and hit it up. They think that it does not matter how much student debt they are carrying because they believe that their salary is going to be double that.

“I believe that is definitely not how it works. That can only work out for people who can afford to go to Harvard and have connections.”

Gender disparity an issue 

Some student thought the study’s results were really nothing new.

“It is shocking but also not surprising. I think it is just more shocking to see it in front of yourself on a piece of paper and you understand that [gender inequality] is very much real,” said Tess Motta, a second year equity of law student at U of T.

“After understanding a bit of what the findings in the study, I wonder, how does race come into this? Like the difference between not just the genders but white women lawyers and women of colour who become lawyers, how does student debt and gender disparity affect women of colour?”

Motta also added that she believes that part of this gender disparity in lawyers exists because of what the “ideal female” is. 

However, Motta said she believes this image is changing.

“I think the whole idea of normal and the image of what a woman is supposed to be in the traditional sense is already being broken,” said Motta. “Not because a woman is in university but the fact that she is going into law school.”

Financial relief and planning should be involved 

Wang and Sieg’s study also provide solutions to the gender disparity that student debt causes amongst lawyers. The solutions falls on the onus of the law firms and law schools to evaluate their financial policies to include loan repayment programs as well as government subsidies.  

“The main scope of this paper is maybe for schools and governments to better design student financial policies that can better serve students and the economy as it may help transfer lawyers to have public sector jobs,” said Wang.

Wang also said that law students should look into public sector jobs as they are a better prospect for lawyers who have just graduated.  A lawyer can receive some debt relief and as well as alternate payment options for their student debt within the public sector. 

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