May 23, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:11 am
BUSINESS STRATEGY

Lawyer developing niche in student loan debts

HBJ PHOTO/BRAD KANE
HBJ PHOTO/BRAD KANE
Joshua Cohen knows first hand about carrying student loan debt from law school. Now his business is helping others deal with the consequences. But he says the profession needs more people specializing in the field.

Law school debt has become its own legal specialty.

Joshua Cohen, a 2007 graduate of Quinnipiac School of Law, has developed a Hartford law practice based entirely on helping graduates with their student loan debt.

He, of course, uses the proceeds from this practice to pay off his own school debt totaling $160,000.

"The fact that I have a practice based on student loans is ludicrous," said Cohen, 37. "It's a really crappy message for the generation just graduating high school."

From 2001 to 2010, the average amount borrowed per year by law students for their three-year degrees increased 50 percent, according to the American Bar Association. This past academic year, law students borrowed an average of $68,827 for public educations and $106,249 for private educations.

"The question is now 'Is college really worth it?' Cohen said. "That is said because that shouldn't even be a question."

The two main reasons clients seek out Cohen is they are in default on their student loans or they have trouble making their payments. Cohen will fight the collection agencies and use various methods to get clients on affordable payment plans.

Lawyers make up 30-40 percent of his clients, and all of them graduated law school in the past five to 10 years.

"Older attorneys I have come visit me for their kids' issues," Cohen said.

The cost of law school is a crisis the legal profession will have to confront, said Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association.

"Graduating law school with a six-figure debt is completely unacceptable," Zack said.

As costs have increased in the recession, jobs for lawyers are harder to find and salaries remain flat, said Ralph Monaco, Connecticut Bar Association president.

"All of that is putting pressure on people who have high debt, and that is driving career decisions for a lot of people," Monaco said.

Tuition at the three Connecticut law schools is $50,750 per year for Yale University, $42,740 for Quinnipiac, and $21,500 in-state and $44,400 out-of-state for University of Connecticut.

Most incoming law school students don't realize the median starting salary for a lawyer is $62,000, and the high six-figure salaries only go to a select few from the best colleges and universities, Zack said.

Because of high debts, new lawyers can't afford to take certain jobs, especially those that provide services for the low and middle income clients. Even though the greatest need for lawyers in this country is among poorer people, they still can't afford legal advice, Zach said.

"If we can get people with reasonable amounts of debt, then they can better service these people," Zach said.

The American Bar Association is lobbying for a program where lawyers can get loan forgiveness if they go into public service.

Zach also wants to hold law schools accountable, forcing them to divulge information to potential students such as cost per course or per credit, the cost of living per year, the average amount borrowed by students and how many graduates got a job in the legal profession and stayed employed for more than a year.

"It is very important they have an understanding of this before taking no this huge debt that will be with them the rest of their lives," Zach said.

Cohen, the debt lawyer, got into the legal profession because he believed the money would be there. He had an MBA from the University of Phoenix and was living in Florida, but decided to apply to Quinnipiac.

"I got married, and I thought 'I'd like a job I can actually feed my family with,'" Cohen said.

Cohen charges $250 for a consult and as his hourly rate for lawsuits. He is considering raising his rate for lawsuit since the collection agencies have to pay his fee if they lose the case.

The $250 fee for a consult seems high, Cohen said, but he will save his clients that amount or more after one month of reworking their payments.

"I kind of feel bad about it, but I have to pay my student loan issues, too," Cohen said.

Debt issues stemming from student loans will only grow, Cohen said. Loan companies likely will start suing more as people fall behind on their payments. Because many parents are co-signors on the children's students loans, the impact would be felt by several generations.

For-profit colleges and trade schools only exacerbate the problem, Cohen said. Their business model is designed around getting their students federal loans, and they don't have to deal with the debt problems students face after graduation.

The student loan legal specialty is relatively new, and Cohen is helping it grow throughout the country. He advises other attorneys on student debt matters and tries to make referrals for out-of-state clients to find a lawyer in their area.

The more lawyers available to deal with student loan debt, the better it is for the legal profession, Cohen said. He is not concerned about sending work elsewhere, because dealing with the student loan issues of Connecticut residents takes of 80 hours of his week.

"There's plenty of work out there and there will be for a long time," Cohen said.

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