Vol. 75, No. 7, July
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.
by Robert Hirshon
ne 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 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
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
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
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
ABA LRAP Commission Provides National
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
I hope that Wisconsin lawyers will embrace this goal.