By NOAM SCHEIBER
VALPARAISO, Ind. — By most measures, John Acosta is a law school success story. He graduated from Valparaiso University Law School — a well-established regional school here in northwestern Indiana — in the top third of his class this past December, a semester ahead of schedule. He passed the bar exam on his first try in February.
Mr. Acosta, 39, is also a scrupulous networker who persuaded a former longtime prosecutor to join him in starting a defense and family law firm. A police officer for 11 years in Georgia, Mr. Acosta has a rare ability to get inside the head of a cop that should be of more than passing interest to would-be clients.
“I think John’s going to do fine,” said Andrew Lucas, a partner at the firm where Mr. Acosta rents office space. “He’s got other life skills that are attractive to people running into problems.”
Yet in financial terms, there is almost no way for Mr. Acosta to climb out of the crater he dug for himself in law school, when he borrowed over $200,000. The government will eventually forgive the loan — in 25 years — if he’s unable to repay it, as is likely on his small-town lawyer’s salary. But the Internal Revenue Service will treat the forgiven amount as income, leaving him what could easily be a $70,000 tax bill on the eve of retirement, and possibly much higher.
Mr. Acosta is just one of tens of thousands of recent law school graduates caught up in a broad transformation of the legal profession. While demand for other white-collar jobs has rebounded since the recession, law firms and corporations are finding that they can make do with far fewer full-time lawyers than before.