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.