Too many Americans are going to court without lawyers. As Lauren Sudeall Lucas and Darcy Meals noted in an essay in The Conversation, 80 to 90 percent of people in some states are litigating their cases without attorneys, even when their opponents have legal counsel. In Georgia, the authors reported, courts heard 800,000 cases last year involving self-represented litigants.
Lucas and Meals maintain the United States has “far too few lawyers,” but I disagree. As Paul Campos and others have written, there has been a downturn in the legal-services market; and law schools are churning out thousands of new attorneys who graduate with six-figure student loans and no job prospects.
The United States has enough lawyers; in fact, we have too many. The problem is this: practicing lawyers are not representing middle-class people and the poor.
Why? Because most Americans can’t afford to pay an attorney to guide them through protracted litigation. Lawyers leave law school with an average debt load of $140,000; and they must make at least $100,000 a year just to service their student loans. Consequently, attorney fees are too high for most Americans to pay.
Student debtors desperately need lawyers
Lucas and Meals did not mention the plight of student-loan debtors, but this is a special class of people who need good bankruptcy attorneys. In 2012, Jason Iuliano wrote an important law-review article in which he reviewed bankruptcy filings in 2007. Iuliano found that 238,446 student-loan debtors filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred filers even attempted to discharge their student loans. This is unfortunate because Iuliano estimated that 39 percent of the student borrowers who filed for bankruptcy that year “would have been good candidates to obtain relief.”
Remarkably, a few student debtors have gotten their student loans forgiven in the bankruptcy courts even though they were not represented by a lawyer. Richard Precht in Virginia and Jaime Clavito in California filed adversary actions against the Department of Education and obtained stipulated discharges of their student loans without going to trial. These were amazing victories.
Self-appointed experts assert again and again that student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, but this is not true. In recent years, several people have wiped out their student loans in the bankruptcy courts. Moreover, without a doubt, the federal bankruptcy judges are becoming more sympathetic to distressed student borrowers; and the courts are increasingly willing to rule in favor of student-loan debtors when the Department of Education or one of its rapacious debt collectors opposes bankruptcy relief.
What needs to be done?
As I said, the United States has plenty of lawyers, but not enough of them are concerned about justice for the poor. Dozens of public advocacy groups joined lawsuits in support of transgender students who demanded the right to choose their toilet facilities, which is commendable. But 20 million Americans are being crushed by student-loan debt, and very few lawyers have come to their aid.
Where is the Southern Poverty Law Center? Where is the ACLU? Where are the legal aid clinics? Why haven’t these agencies joined the fight to bring debt relief to deserving student borrowers?
Just a few able and committed lawyers could completely change the legal landscape for student-loan debtors. I estimate that 25 or 30 competent lawyers, defending a few clients in several federal circuits, could persuade the federal courts to reinterpret the “undue hardship” standard that has been applied so harshly against desperate student borrowers over the years.
In my view, the federal courts are willing to ruling in favor of student borrowers who file bankruptcy if only they are presented with good legal arguments. Many–perhaps most–bankruptcy judges are liberal minded. They know it is their job to provide a fresh start to “honest but unfortunate” debtors. Moreover, I think many are offended by the way the Trump administration has handled the student-loan catastrophe; or at least they would be offended if they were educated by student-loan debtors’ attorneys.
The bankruptcy courts provide the best avenue for relief for distressed student-loan debtors
It is time to face harsh facts. Millions of Americans have committed financial suicide by taking out student loans they can’t pay back. The student loan program has driven legions of people out of the national economy, preventing them from buying homes, getting married, or saving for their retirement.
Congress has not done anything to provide relief. In fact, the House of Representatives recently approved a bill that will make it almost impossible for defrauded student debtors to sue the for-profit colleges that swindled them. The Department of Education, now run by the wicked witch of the east, Betsy DeVos, is doing everything it can to advance the venal interests of the for-profit college industry.
The bankruptcy courts provide the only hope for relief from oppressive and unpayable student-loan debt. Good lawyers need to represent oppressed student debtors in the bankruptcy courts, educating the judges about the Tenth Circuit’s Polleys decision, the Seventh Circuit’s Krieger decision, the Eighth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel’s Fern decision, and the Ninth Circuit BAP’s Roth decision. The judges need to understand that federal case law now often favors the student-loan debtor.
In sum, we have enough attorneys; but we do not have enough lawyers who are willing to go toe-to-toe against the U.S. Department of Education, the debt collectors, and the sleazy for-profit college industry.