Christina Stueve Hodges Nov. 19, 2012, 7:28am

After finishing law school at St. Louis University in 2011, Jenna Kearns owed $170,000.

“It’s something I don’t like talking about,” she said.

Local law professionals and recent law graduates discussed law school debt during a three-hour conference sponsored by the Illinois State Bar Association on Thursday at Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights.

Kearns told a panel that if she started law school again, she would have gone part-time so she could work while in school to decrease her debt load.

St. Louis University School of Law Dean and Belleville attorney Tom Keefe called law schools a “cash cow.”

“The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” he said. “It’s a mess. It’s truly a mess. It’s all about the money.”

The problem is a lack of funding for organizations like the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid Foundation, Keefe said, which hires young attorneys at a starting salary of $41,500 and guarantees three years of employment. Land of Lincoln serves low income individuals.

“We don’t have too many lawyers," Keefe said. "We have too many lawyers with too much debt.”

Land of Lincoln Director Lois Wood said that for most law schools, keeping U.S. News and World Reports rankings high is more important than keeping students out of debt.

“When did U.S. News and World Reports become the oracle on law school?” Keefe said.

St. Louis University had an admitting class of 210 this year and a graduating class of 330, Keefe said.

He boldly suggested downsizing curriculum to two years, followed by working for a year at a law firm instead of the  traditional three-year law school program.

“Take the third year out," he said. "You’re not going to tell me that you can’t pass the bar after two years."

Michael Swanson completed his bachelor’s degree debt free with the G.I. Bill. He then started law school in 2006 when “the economy was fantastic,” but graduated with a $100,000 law school debt. The Madison County State’s attorney’s office started him at $39,000 per year. He then started his own firm, Swanson and Sackett.

Latasha Barnes started as a staff attorney in October at Land of Lincoln after working for Eastern Legal Services of Missouri. She graduated St. Louis University in 2009. She chose St. Louis University Law School, based on scholarships she was offered. She came from a family who couldn’t help her with debt, she said.

She started law school with a two-year old child, but she’s not sure she would be proud if her son chose to be a lawyer.

She studied juvenile law while in law school, though her mentor told her she would not find work in juvenile law.

“I enjoyed law school more than a lot of people, because I took the courses that I liked,” she said.

After law school, she said she owed $75,000, but many owed two to three times what she owed after graduation.

Each month, she figures out how to pay her student loans. She relates to Land of Lincoln clients, who struggle to make ends meet as she does.

She tells people, “Don’t just go to law school just because you can get a loan.”

“I felt I was being wise by choosing the school that offered me a scholarship, but even at $75,000, it’s still very burdensome,” she said

“At this point, we have a system where those with wealth will always have access to attorneys,” she said.

Adam Berry of Carlyle said he did not come from a family of lawyers.

After completing business school at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Target offered Berry $46,000.

After graduating St. Louis University’s law school with $180,000 in loans, he accepted a position with Beatty Motil.

His $42,000 base salary, ($50,000 with benefits) is fair, but he has reservations about buying a home. His student loans would cost more than the house, with his wife’s salary as a speech language pathologist, comparable to his.

“They’re paying me a great salary for my experience,” he said. “We started to look at homes. We’ve put it on the back burner.”

Amy Sample graduated Washington University Law School in May 2006, with $150,000 in debt. She whittled that amount down to $138,000 with her $50,000 annual salary from Land of Lincoln. She feels lucky she was selected for a fellowship by the Chicago Bar Association, providing $50,000 for the next five years.

She said she was told by a Washington University counselor graduating with a six figure debt was no problem.

Wood described law school debt as “cloud over the lives” of graduates working in her office.

“All of our new hires have substantial debt,” she said.

Lawyers may wind up paying off debt while their children are in college, she added.

“One of our former lawyers came with two years of experience," Wood said. "She had gone to law school later in life. She was forced to leave legal aid. She moved out of her house into a lower cost apartment."

“Part of what this task force does is look for solutions. The upward cost of law school needs to end. Law schools need to graduate lawyers who are practice-ready.”

Elizabeth Heller, director of asbestos litigation and a partner at Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli & Rowland, graduated Washington University’s law program more than 20 years ago with $100,000 in debt.

After law school, half her paycheck was spent on the mortgage she calls law school, but the people she worked for loaned her money for her loans. She paid them off.

“I went into law school with open eyes," Heller said. "I’ve been through it. It’s tough. I wanted to be a prosecuting attorney. I wanted to be in public service.”

Private practice was her only option.

“Debt does become overwhelming,” she said.

Heller suggested the Illinois State Bar Association use a portion of its funding to help young attorneys.

Heller said it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep young lawyers as employees because of what they owe.

“It makes them make some risky decisions,” she said. “People jump firms for the possibility of making more money quicker.”

Steve Kaufmann, a partner at HeplerBroom in Springfield, testified his 30-year-old daughter borrowed $130,000 to go to law school.

“Debt is a serious thing,” he said.

Kaufmann said students start law school with ideals of being chief editor of the law review and that top corporations will hire them for top dollar. The reality is daily work at a law firm is not glamorous and somewhat boring, according to Kaufmann.

HeplerBroom’s starting salary is $68,000.

Kaufmann agreed if students spend their third year of law school in a law office, their time would be better spent than sitting through actual school.

Second district Appellate Judge Ann Jorgensen and Granite City attorney Dennis Orsey co-chair the ISBA special committee.

Russell K. Scott, senior litigation officer with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C.,  and co-manager of the firm's Belleville office, also attended.

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