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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 01, 2002

    Easing Debt Encourages Public Service Careers

    The increasing load of law school debt discourages new lawyers from pursuing public service careers, which typically pay signiciantly less than private law positions. Loan repayment assistance programs ease the debt burden, so new lawyers can take public service jobs and still pay the rent.

    Robert Hirshon

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 75, No. 7, July 2002

    Easing debt encourages public service careers

    The increasing load of law school debt discourages new lawyers from pursuing public service careers, which typically pay signiciantly less than private law positions. Loan repayment assistance programs ease the debt burden, so new lawyers can take public service jobs and still pay the rent.

    Diploma and stack of moneyby Robert Hirshon

    One can hardly think of an occupation that has a greater disparity in the levels of compensation of similarly trained and skilled practitioners than the legal profession. Ours is a profession with some lawyers making annual salaries in excess of $1 million, while many others earn less than $35,000. Why is this?

    Accounting for the Wide Salary Gap

    A look to the income disparities in the whole of our economic system is of no help. Generally, across our macro-economy, a job that requires high skill and substantial training tends to pay more than a job requiring no training and little skill. But this generalization doesn't work when examining the disparities within the legal profession. In fact, I dare anyone to tell a public defender or an attorney working in a legal aid clinic that his or her job requires less skill than does the job of a private practitioner. Representing a nonpaying client requires no less knowledge of the law, no less courtroom persuasion, no fewer strategic impulses than representing a paying client.

    In large part, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, our level of compensation parallels the financial condition of the particular clients we happen to serve. While there are exceptions, we generally can assume that you will be better compensated if your client is a large multinational corporation than if your client is impoverished and seeks your advice because you are employed by a legal aid society.

    Admittedly, there is a lot more to a legal career than the amount of money one makes. This is why, throughout the history of our profession, countless lawyers have happily chosen lower paying public service work over higher paying employment in the private sector. For that matter, professional satisfaction studies in our profession have not been able to link increased wages with increased job satisfaction. Indeed, the opposite may be true. Moreover, there are many intangibles that are more persuasive than money when it comes to career decisions and fulfillment. One of the greatest aspects of our profession is that we can choose to work in almost any environment imaginable - understanding full well that some avenues are better compensated than others. But these are the choices we have in front of us.

    Or do we?

    Law School Debt Limits Career Choices

    Robert HirshonRobert Hirshon, Michigan 1973, is president of the American Bar Association for 2001-02. He concentrates his practice in commercial litigation and legislative and regulatory advocacy at Drummond, Woodsum & MacMahon in Portland, Maine.

    Recently, the runaway and astronomical law school debt currently burdening young lawyers has threatened to eliminate their career choices.

    When I graduated from the University of Michigan in the early `70s, I incurred $3,000 worth of debt to help finance my law school education (about $12,000 in today's money). This debt burden didn't fundamentally alter my career choices - it didn't prohibit me from following my own aspirations of what a career in the law meant to me. In contrast, the current generation graduating from law school is saddled with an average debt in excess of $80,000. For private law schools the figures are even higher. Under current amortization rates many new graduates anticipate paying more than $1,000 per month in loan repayments for the first 10 years of their careers. (See Consolidating Law School Debt.")

    This amount of debt elicits little sympathy for the graduate who seeks the high-paying, large law firm career track. Indeed, skyrocketing starting salaries in certain sectors of our profession mean that even some first-year associates can afford such debt. But what if the new lawyer wants to work in the public service sector? Public service salaries have not skyrocketed, and choosing public service has become economically prohibitive. No matter how little one is willing to earn, one always needs to bring in at least as much as one is obligated to pay out.

    Unfortunately, when vast numbers of lawyers are prevented from following their professional calling due to the high tab for training and licensing, they are not the only ones hurt. The fundamental principle of access to justice is equally affected in the revolving doors of understaffed legal service and public defender offices across our country. Clearly, the poor suffer, and ultimately society suffers.

    Easing Debt Burden Encourages Public Service

    Loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) offered from both the private and public sectors have emerged as a solution to relieve the debt burden of some law graduates. LRAPs generally provide loan repayment or loan forgiveness to graduates entering specific types of employment, usually law-related public service jobs. The idea is simple: If the monthly debt burden is eased, many new lawyers can take public service jobs and still pay the rent.

    Such programs already are under- way in Wisconsin. Both the U.W. Law School and Marquette University Law School have created LRAP programs. A Marquette Law School graduate who makes less than $40,000 per year working full-time at an approved public interest position is eligible for loan forgiveness. At the U.W. Law School the salary cap is a little lower but the principle is the same. The Wisconsin LRAP Coalition, a group including representatives from the State Bar of Wisconsin Public Interest Law Section, law schools, and public interest agencies, is exploring the creation of a statewide LRAP.

    ABA LRAP Commission Provides National Leadership

    To provide national leadership on this issue, I appointed a special ABA commission, chaired by Judge Frank Coffin of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Maine, and San Francisco lawyer Curtis Caton, to examine the impact of law school debt on graduates' career choices and to recommend solutions.

    This group is partnering with law schools, local and state bar associations, and other private organizations to increase both the awareness of this important issue and the availability of LRAP programs. Thus, the ABA commission is drafting sample LRAPs for law schools to use when designing a program. The commission also is drafting sample state LRAP legislation and developing other resources to help state leaders and policymakers create statewide LRAPs.

    While the private sector can do much, the public sector also must carry its weight. Congress already provides government loan-forgiveness programs for physicians who work in underserved or remote areas. Why? Because access to health care is considered a fundamental value of our society. If we believe that fair, equal access to our justice system also is a fundamental value, then similar programs also should exist to allow recent law school graduates the economic capacity to serve the poor and disadvantaged.

    Practically, this public-sector focus will mean expanding the loan forgiveness provisions at the federal level. Therefore, the ABA commission is undertaking a cohesive legislative and administrative advocacy plan on the federal level, with a focus on lobbying for changes to the income-contingent repayment option of the Federal Direct Loan Program and for increases in the Stafford loan limits for law students. I invite anyone seeking further information on the work of this commission to visit its Web site at

    The goal of the LRAP movement I'm describing is simple: to create an environment where the required education to become a lawyer doesn't, in and of itself, prohibit lawyers from minimally supporting themselves if they choose to dedicate their careers to serving our nation's neediest citizens.

    I hope that Wisconsin lawyers will embrace this goal.

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