Law Schools, Money, NALP, National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Public Interest

As Law School Costs Skyrocket, Is It Still Feasible To Pursue A Public Interest Career?

Admit it: when you applied to law school, your admissions essay was probably about your desire to help some poor, disadvantaged group of people. You walked in the door bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to conquer the world one unpaid public interest internship at a time.

If by some chance you weren’t convinced to give up on your dreams of helping the disenfranchised, now that you’ve graduated, you’ve probably realized that this whole “public interest” thing isn’t exactly working out so well for you. After all, servicing six figures of debt is no easy task on a $45K salary, even with school-sponsored loan repayment assistance programs (if your school has one). As it turns out, now you’re one of those poor, disadvantaged people.

This leads to a very relevant question that was recently raised by the National Association for Law Placement: should you even consider pursuing a public interest career path after graduating from law school? Is it really worth it? Let’s take a look at some salary figures and find out….

Today, NALP released its biennial Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, and some of the figures are stunning when compared to the trade group’s Associate Salary Survey, which we covered last month. Whereas Biglaw associates are complaining about a median starting salary of $145,000, civil legal services employees are starting with a whopping median salary of $42,800. Given the stark differences in starting salaries, it’s understandable how one might be persuaded to join the dark side.

Check out the table from NALP’s latest public interest salary report (click to enlarge):

For most of these jobs, at fifteen years out, you’ll be making a little more than half of what first-year Biglaw associates take home. At least you’ll still have your moral convictions, and that’s worth more than some money from The Man — right, do-gooders? It’s worth noting, however, that both public interest and public sector salaries have kept up with inflation during the past eight years, even through a recession.

Law school costs, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. Here’s more from Jim Leipold, NALP’s Executive Director, on why law school graduates should reconsider embarking on a public interest pathway:

“[D]uring the same period the cost of a legal education and the average amount of law student loan debt have both risen at a much higher pace, which means that despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disincentives at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public interest legal careers.”

No public interest law for you.

“Significant economic disincentives,” you say? That’s not what law schools want to hear right now, as more of them push the public interest agenda down students’ throats, while at the same time raising their tuition. Can you go to law school to pursue a public service career? Sure, but only if you want to be as poor as your clients!

Depending on what area of the country we’re looking at, it’s fair to say that most people wouldn’t be able to survive on a $40K-50K salary, even without the associated debt of a law degree. With that debt, you’re likely looking at an extremely perilous financial situation. You might be passionate about whatever cause you’re championing, but your loan servicers are even more passionate about collecting what’s due to them.

If you’re really hell-bent on changing the world, it may be a good idea to look into some other options aside from law school — you know, options that would be less financially ruinous for you.

New Public Interest and Public Sector Salary Figures from NALP Show Little Growth Since 2004 [NALP]
Are Public Interest, Public Sector Careers Worth Law School Cost? NALP Sees ‘Economic Disincentives’
[ABA Journal]

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