Mary P. Gallagher

In Debt More Than Ever, New Lawyers Shun Public Work: A Law Graduate's Median Debt is $84,400, National Survey Shows
New Jersey Law Journal November 25, 2002

Two-thirds of law students have taken on "mortgage-sized educational debt burdens" that make public-interest or government careers cost-prohibitive, a recent survey finds. The study, by the National Association for Law Placement and groups promoting public service and public-interest law, finds that 94 percent of law graduates responding borrowed to pay for their legal education. The median debt was $84,400, excluding undergraduate loans, and their average debt was even higher. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents owed at least $45,000, about half owed more than $75,000 and one-fifth topped $105,000.

Survey questionnaires were e-mailed to all 184 ABA-approved law schools and the study reflects responses from 1,622 graduating law students at 117 schools. . . . The results were released last Monday in a report titled, "From Paper Chase to Money Chase: Law School Debt Diverts Road to Public Service."

The report further finds that the deterrent effect of law-school debt on public-interest and public-service jobs has been exacerbated over the past 10 years. Private law firms have always paid more than nonprofits and government employers, but the report cites NALP figures that show the pay gap widened between 1991 and 2001. Median starting salaries at private firms rose 80 percent - from $50,000 to $90,000 - compared with 37 percent hikes for government jobs [$30,000 to $41,000] and for public-interest work [$25,500 to $35,000].

For the class of 2001, 45 percent of private-sector jobs paid more than $95,000 compared with the $30,000 to $50,000 received by 90 percent of those hired by public defender and prosecutor offices and the $26,000 to $45,000 by legal-services lawyers. "We're falling further behind," says Paul Mullin, director of Middlesex County Legal Services, which starts lawyers off in the low $40,000s. "You think you're making progress and bringing salaries up" while "the private sector is getting further out of reach," he adds, saying he's noticed a drop in r**sum**s in the past few years. "

Large loans make a hard recruiting and retention job much tougher," says Harold Garwin, president of Community Health Law Project of South Orange, a nonprofit that advocates for the disabled. He also sees the problem as getting worse. Law students interested in public service have never expected to earn top dollar, but the pressure to work in the private sector has intensified because the rising cost of law school has outpaced most other increases in the cost of living. From 1991 to 2001, median tuition at private law schools jumped 76 percent, from $12,999 to $22,870. The jump was even greater at public law schools, rising 140 percent from $3,225 to $7,738, for state residents, and 119 percent, from $8,006 to $17,538, for out-of-staters. As a result, total law school debt rose by 59 percent from a median of $53,200 in 1993 to nearly $85,000 in 2000, according to the American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. On top of that, most law students also carry college debt. . . .

The NALP survey's foremost recommendation is that law schools increase and improve Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, which help graduates who take low-paying public service jobs. All three New Jersey schools are already moving in that direction. The Rutgers-Newark LRAP, in effect since 1997, covered the entire debt payments for 10 graduates from the class of 2001, up from partial coverage for seven class of 2000 graduates. Frances Bouchoux, associate dean of career services, expects the program to do more in the coming year, boosted by a $1 million anonymous donation last March.

At least seven states have authorized LRAPS, but only a few have provided funding, including Maryland and North Carolina, says Sheila Siegel Ketcham, a spokeswoman for Equal Justice Works, one of the survey sponsors, which was formerly known as the National Association for Public Interest Law. The survey also urges creation of scholarship programs, enhanced outreach to college students by public-service employers and other measures.