When law students graduate from law school, they may have several exciting professional opportunities waiting for them, but only one financial path to pursue. No matter their rank in the class or the quality of their extracurricular activities during their legal education, they must take the highest-paying position available, whether or not it is consistent with their real professional interests and passions. The cost of legal education and the necessary debt it creates are obstacles that prevent new law school graduates from pursuing public interest positions—in government, tax-exempt organizations, and public legal services.
For a long time, I believed the freedom of thought of the academic world and the purity of the analysis in the classroom would inspire young lawyers to pursue public interest opportunities right after graduation. For some reason, it seemed to me that the new lawyers were most interested in civil rights and representative justice and being the defenders of the undefended or the prosecutors for the state when they first emerge from the halls of their legal education. That was before I met people like Jonathan Asher of Colorado Legal Services, who has devoted his entire legal career to legal aid for the poor and underrepresented and has spent a substantial amount of his time and effort simply worrying whether that program will continue to be funded. And he is just one example.
But there is never enough money to run public interest programs. Therefore, there is never enough money to pay the young, eager lawyers who would like to work during the beginning of their careers on cases that would not only challenge their minds, but also satisfy their hearts.
The Law School Debt Burden
The cost of a legal education is staggering today. Tuition at twenty-five law schools exceeds $25,000 per year, and eight other schools charge more than $28,000, over double the average cost just ten years ago.1 An average student graduating from law school in 2003 will be carrying a debt burden of approximately $84,000 when he or she is handed a diploma, and that doesn’t count any remaining undergraduate debt. Even if those students have planned how that debt could be retired in an orderly manner over the first several years of their careers, debt repayment will affect all aspects of their lives, from qualifying for credit to buying a house or a car to affording to have a family or even enjoying a ski vacation.
The idea of accepting a position in a public defender’s or legal aid office in a rural environment for a salary of less than one-third of the average starting associate salary in an urban law firm is out of the question for the sensible graduate. Starting salaries in private practice average $90,000 per year, while average public-interest starting salaries average only $35,000.2 When an average law student is making payments of $1,500 per month toward a mortgage-sized educational debt burden, those who decide to pursue public service careers are left with only about $17,000 a year on which to live.3 A study conducted by a consortium of organizations4 particularly concerned about the problem of law school debt found the following:
— Law school debt prevented 66 percent of student respondents from considering a public interest job or government job.
— 94 percent of law students borrowed to pay tuition for law school.
— 69 percent of public interest employers report difficulty in recruiting attorneys, and 62 percent have difficulty retaining experienced attorneys.
— 39 percent of law graduates show significant interest in working for the federal government (but only 3 percent accepted such positions).
— 83 percent of the graduates would be interested in a post-graduate government position if they could have $6,000 a year in loan repayment assistance.
— 88 percent of graduates who join mid- to large-sized law firms placed salary among the top three factors in deciding to pursue a private sector job; only 39 percent selected "nature of work" as one of the top three factors.5
Fortunately, those disposed to public service will pursue pro bono and community activities when their duties at the law firm permit, and many will provide hours of valuable donated time in the public interest. But that doesn’t begin to satisfy the need for public interest representation. Although many lawyers graduate from law school with a passion to help the poor and downtrodden and are willing to make the personal sacrifice to devote a career to this work, something must be done about their huge mountain of indebtedness.
Some organizations already have addressed this problem, and there are a variety of means to attempt to resolve it. A few of these are described below.
American Bar Association Commission
The American Bar Association formed a Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness in August 2001, and extended its work in June 2002. The Commission is exploring the impact on educational debt on law graduates’ ability to pursue and remain in public service legal careers. The Commission intends to promote loan repayment programs from law schools and state and federal government in a variety of ways, including lobbying and educational efforts.6
When dentists faced huge debt burdens that discouraged the practitioners from serving rural communities, they went to the legislature. State loan forgiveness or grant assistance to promote professional services in hard-to-serve communities and populations also is being encouraged by some state governments for lawyers. For example, the Governor of Georgia formed a task force to create a program for attorneys working for the public interest, such as prosecutors, public defenders, and legal aid attorneys.7 California and Texas also enacted legislation to create statewide loan repayment assistance programs ("LRAPs"). Unfortunately, none of the legislatures of those states has appropriated any funds to the programs.8
Federal programs fall into several categories. Loans under the Perkins Federal Loan Program may be canceled incrementally if graduates work in particular public interest fields. The definition of "public interest" is often narrow, however, and lawyers only qualify if they are working with high-risk children and their families.9 In 1990, Congress passed a law authorizing the use of loan repayment assistance of up to $6,000 per year and up to $40,000 for graduates who committed to a three-year term of service. Regulations for the authority were only recently written, and a few agencies have actually awarded loan repayments. Expanded use of this program has been urged by LRAP advocates.10
Law School LRAPs
During the past two decades, fifty-two law schools have developed LRAP programs, although most of the benefits were provided by only six law schools: Yale, New York University, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and Georgetown.11 Students at the University of Oregon organized their own LRAP, providing forgivable loans of up to $5,000 per year toward educational debt for up to five years. If the graduate works at a public interest job for one year, he or she pays back two-thirds of that year’s loan. After three years, the loan is forgiven.12 Several faculty members of the University of Oregon contributed seed money, and law firms and alumni are being solicited to fund the program. At Rutgers, law school administrators asked the students to add a payment of $25 to each semester’s tuition to fund an LRAP. This program also recently has been substantially funded by a wealthy alumnus who contributed $1 million to the fund.13
Law schools have an additional incentive to help their graduates. Financial aid in law schools is usually predicated on the assumption that graduates will be placed in positions with relatively high salaries. But that is not the case in government and public interest positions. An LRAP is a "type of back end financial aid" that permits graduates to take these lower paying positions.14
Public Interest Employers
Several public interest employers offer loan repayment assistance, such as Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland and the Georgia Legal Services Program in Atlanta.15 These programs are few and far between because most public interest employers have skeletal budgets in the first place, and it is all they can do to keep their operations going. While only approximately 13 percent of public interest employers offer such assistance to attorneys, the vast majority who do said it is an effective recruitment and retention tool.16 Also, private law firms with dedicated community spirit offer programs to lend their salaried attorneys to public interest organizations for a period of time or provide generous public-interest fellowships.17
Bar Association Programs
The Chicago Bar Foundation recently received a gift of $100,000 from one of the officers of the Foundation and his wife to create a ten-year public interest law fellowship for one law school graduate each year who elects to work in public interest law in Chicago.18 The Arizona Bar Association was instrumental in establishing the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education Loan Repayment Program, offering a loan of $6,000 per year for graduates whose income is less than $45,000 annually and who work for approved non-profit legal organizations.19 The New Hampshire Bar Foundation makes forgivable loans equivalent to a percentage of the attorney’s total indebtedness.20
Colorado Bar Association
To Study LRAPs
I have asked the Legal Education and Admissions Committee of the Colorado Bar Association to study the various LRAPs and to recommend a program that the CBA can pursue. The goal is to establish and implement a program to assist graduates of Colorado law schools who are willing to commit to public interest practice for the first few years of their careers. Such a program would be fully complementary to our efforts to increase and provide effective access to justice for all of our citizens.21
The CBA is in a unique position to encourage and assist private firms, public interest employers, and Colorado law schools to establish a coordinated program that takes the best from the many available models. If our Association can help new lawyers pursue public interest careers in government, non-profit organizations, and legal services for the poor and underrepresented, it will well serve new Colorado lawyers, as well as our public institutions and our profession.
1. National Assoc. of Law Placement ("NALP") and Partnership for Public Service, "Paper Chase to Money Chase: Law School Debt Diverts Road to Public Service, Equal Justice Works" (paper published Nov. 2002) (hereafter, "Paper Chase").
2. NALP and NAPIL/NLADA, "Starting Salaries: What New Law Graduates Earn, Class of 2001," (Employer Recruitment and Retention Survey, 2001).
3. Bahls, "It’s Payback Time for Public Interest Lawyers," Student Lawyer 16, 17 (Sept. 2002).
4. Paper Chase, supra, note 1. The study was conducted by Equal Justice Works, NALP, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
5. Id. at 6 and 23.
6. "Loan Repayment and Forgiveness Update," Dialogue 30 (Summer 2002).
8. ABA Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness, "A Snapshot of State Loan Repayment Programs" (Aug. 2002). The Texas Access to Justice Commission recently announced that it received private donations to create a temporary program until state funding becomes available. In October 2002, the Commission began making grants of $100 per month to lawyers who work for programs funded by the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation.
9. Bahls, supra, note 3 at 18.
10. Paper Chase, supra, note 1 at 37.
11. Bahls, supra, note 3 at 18.
12. Id. at 17.
13. Id. at 19.
14. Paper Chase, supra, note 1 at 35.
15. Bahls, supra, note 3 at 19.
16. Paper Chase, supra, note 1 at 36.
17. For example, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager and Flom, a national law firm with its principal office in New York, offers a fellowship. See Bahls, supra, note 3 at 19.
18. See note 6, supra.
19. Program Description, Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education Loan Repayment Program.
20. Application for Assistance, New Hampshire Bar Foundation Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Program.
21. See Moye, "Access to Justice and Funding for the Courts: CBA President’s Message to Members," 32 The Colorado Lawyer 25 (Jan. 2003).