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September 21, 2005

Reality Testing Law School Debt and the Public Interest Career

You hear it all the time in law school: “I need to get a big firm job so I can pay off my loans.” Sometimes the statement is prefaced with, “I'd like to do X, but...” where X is some form of public interest work. Supposedly studies show that a large majority of entering 1Ls express a desire to go into public interest law, yet only something like 3% of law graduates (on average) actually take public interest jobs upon graduation. There are many reasons for this, including that there just aren't enough public interest jobs, and that's because the government keeps cutting funding for them because, hey, if you're poor, you don't deserve legal representation so buck up!

Tangent. Sorry. So there is stiff competition for public interest jobs, but another reason people choose the firm route is that they think it's going to be a good way to pay off their debt. But is that true?

According to my Public Interest Lawyering instructor (hereafter PI Prawf), it's really a load of crap—at least at GW. PI Prawf claims the median income at GW last year was about $65k/year. That means half of GW graduates are making less than $65k. Only about the top 8% are making the mythical $100-120k—the big firm starting numbers. Lots of PI jobs pay $40-50k to start, plus you might be able to get around $5-10k/year in loan repayment assistance—either from your job/fellowship or school—so the PI career could pay nearly as much as 50% of GW grads make, yet only 1-3% of GW grads are going to do public interest. The point is that the money difference between public interest and what at least half of GW grads makes is not really that big—certainly not big enough to be an excuse not to pursue a public interest career for students who are sincere in their desire to do so.

My thoughts on this are that an extra $15k/year (the difference between the GW median of $65k and the top you can reasonably expect from a public interest job, which I would say is $50k) can be significant—that's your loan payments right there. Also, I think statistics showing large majorities of law students expressing a desire to do public interest work are bogus. When surveyed, students are much more likely to say something like “I want to help people” than they are to say “I want to make buckets of cash!” So I'm skeptical of arguments like these that the lack of financial assistance for public interest lawyers is what keeps their numbers low. Still, if such arguments work to increase the number of law schools offering LRAPs or to increase the amount of funding those schools pay out in the LRAPs that exist, I'm happy to forget my skepticism and jump on the bandwagon. ;-)

And speaking of LRAPs, kudos to BU Law, which has just doubled its LRAP program.

For prospective law students who really do think they want to do public interest law and are trying to decide where to apply, the ABA offers a guide to Law School Public Interest and Pro Bono Programs, but it looks like it was last updated in 2003. The ABA is also trying to collect information about LRAP options at various schools, although EJW is also doing that (see below). Finally, the ABA is pushing federal legislation to provide some form of federal loan forgiveness for law students. You can find links to the legislation in the Law Student Division's legislation page—it's HR 198 and HR 507. If you are a resident in a jurisdiction that gives you representation in Congress (IOW, if you're not a DC resident), please write your reps and ask them to support these bills!

Finally, Equal Justice Works has just published The E-Guide to Public Service at America's Law Schools, its first attempt to give prospective law students some measure of the relative support for public interest law at law schools. It's certainly a start and it provides some really great data, such as average amount spent on LRAP per student (if a school has an LRAP), average debt load for students at the school, and much more. Unfortunately, not all schools participated so it can give only part of the picture.

The bottom line in the law school public interest money game is what we all know if we're honest: On average, public interest jobs pay less. However, when you add in LRAPs and job satisfaction, you're likely to come out ahead in a PI career if that's what you want to do. If you're using money as your excuse, you're just kidding yourself. Drop the excuses and just admit you want to do something else. On the other hand, if all they hype has convinced you that money was a barrier to a PI career but it's really really what you want to do—stop worrying. Make smart choices about where you go to school (forget US News; choose the school with the best LRAP!), apply for fellowships that provide loan forgiveness, work for passage of federal loan forgiveness, and just do what you want to do. Like every PI lawyer I've ever met says—it will work out, it won't be as hard as you thought, you won't be as poor as you thought, and you'll be so very glad you followed your bliss.

Posted September 21, 2005 10:34 AM | 3L

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This is a great post. Incredibly helpful. I even fired off one of the links to one of the career folks at my alma mater for their attention. Keep up the great reporting from the PI law frontlines!

Posted by: womanofthelaw at September 21, 2005 10:59 AM

As far as I'm concered, you are right on the mark, MOWABB. It is a theme that I've been harping on for the past couple of years. For example in this reply to a Comment:

The key to releasing the golden cuffs is deciding that a less expensive lifestyle is acceptable -- including less expensive neighborhood and home, auto, wardrobe, vacations, hobbies, and social life. It sounds like a rather flimsy excuse for someone who does not yet have a family to support to say, "I want to use my degree to change the world, but my debt is too high."

Maybe I should blame my generation of middle-class Baby Boomers for raising, on the whole, a generation of children who feel entitled to most of the amenities of a successful middle-class lifestyle, even when first entering their careers.

Yes, there are lots of things a lawyer cannot afford, if she or he wants to do public interest or public service law, or even wants to try new models of offering legal services as an entrepeneur. (Also, that lawyer may need to find a mate who can accept the consequences.) If you snap on those handcuffs in your 20's, don't kid yourself that they will ever come off. There will always be another level of spending that is "necessary," after the debt is paid off -- bigger home in the right neighborhood (with bathrooms for everyone), tuition for the right schools for the kids, ski trips, more and better cars, ad nauseum et ad infinitum.

For most neophyte lawyers, saying "My debt keeps me from trying to improve the world" actually means "My current and projected lifestyle needs are more important to me than trying to change the world." That's not necessarily bad (it's an attitude that keeps our GNP high). Being honest about your own goals and values is far better than self-serving whining. That honesty might lead to a change in goals and a change in perspective about whether they can be achieved. (that's my preach quota for today)

[And see 1L of a Decision]

Posted by: David Giacalone at September 21, 2005 12:09 PM

Write Congressman: Check!

Wait a minute, that doesn't sound quite right... :)

Posted by: Dave! at September 21, 2005 01:51 PM

It seems that the kids who want to biglaw are in the minority at American -- most people here are striving to get into PI or government.

Speaking of government, would you consider that PI? I would definitely consider PDs as PI, but probably not DAs or even federal agency lawyers. Federal agencies are where it's at -- pretty good GS pay, flex-time, 9-5 hours...that's the way to go!

Posted by: tony at September 21, 2005 02:43 PM

This is cool, you have to try it. I guessed 44438, and this game guessed it! See it here -

Posted by: Allison Trump at October 27, 2005 05:49 PM

I've managed to save up roughly $70007 in my bank account, but I'm not sure if I should buy a house or not. Do you think the market is stable or do you think that home prices will decrease by a lot?

Posted by: Courtney Gidts at December 30, 2005 02:23 PM

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