So You Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer?

I am currently living in Chicago and seriously considering applying to law school. I am interested in specializing in Public Interest Law as I have a Political Science background. However a law program (even part-time) is a major investment for me and I wanted to know if you know the salary scale for working in the government or non-profit sector as mentioned in your blog. This would be starting salaries of course as I would have major loans upon graduation and need to know what kind of lifestyle I would be looking at.

I'm glad you're asking this question before you sign on the dotted line. I read an article recently that I really wanted to blog about (more on that below), and your question ties in nicely, so this post will get a bit longer than usual. I receive a lot of questions from readers about public interest law, and hope you all find the extra length worthwhile.

First, to answer your specific question: Public interest salaries have a wide range. Starting salaries in the 30K-40K range would include some District Attorney and Public Defender offices (though some start higher), many legal aid jobs, as well as fellowship positions. The higher end would include jobs at the federal regulatory agencies (like the SEC), where starting salaries can range from about 70K to 100K. Federal salaries are usually the highest and enjoy consistent raises over time. The best resource for this information is NALP at http://www.nalp.org/publicsectorsalaries.

Let's also look at a bigger question: Can you live off of a 40-50K salary, even without debt? It's not the easiest thing, as many people can attest, and it's something to think about as you evaluate different career options and different kinds of investments in your career. I wrote a blog posting a few years ago about how queasy that math is, and I quoted a prosecutor who talked to me about the financial realities of his job:

A 'lifestyle job,' despite the conventional wisdom, does not mean 'few hours for mediocre pay.' 'Lifesyle' means being able to lay your head on the pillow at night knowing that you've done some good on behalf of people who need it (rather than corporations, shareholders, or fiduciaries--not that they aren't worthy parties sometimes).

But look at the salaries for prosecutors--$40,000 for rural areas, $44,000 for metropolitan areas. Do the math: $44,000 x .30 = $13,200 (federal taxes). That leaves you $30,800 after taxes -- and that assumes you have no state income tax. $30,800 is $2566 per month. Rent, utilities, groceries? Optimistically, those come to $1000. That's $1566 per month left over.

Health care/pension payments? I pay 11% of my gross in required pension payments, so let's say it's an even 10% ($4,400) per year. That's another $366 per month. Add vision, dental, life insurance, health savings accounts, and my take-home is down to $1100 per month.

So after all of those fixed costs, you still potentially have: undergraduate loans, law school loans, car payments, vacations, Christmas presents, clothes, a beer or two, and savings/retirement contributions (hahaha...as if that's possible)....

The prosecuting jobs and other public service positions are attractive for a lot of people, but most of my friends were unable to do it because of the size of the loans they were facing, and/or their positions in life. One of my closest friends got married during third year of law school and was planning to have a child. If you plug "wife and child" into the $44,000 analysis above, I think the balance would break down relatively quickly.

Or take me...I want to be able to buy a house at some point this year, and I'm single, have no children, and no significant debt. I did the spreadsheet routine with my starting salary (which is about $5000 lower than the median metropolitan area prosecutor's salary) and I realized I needed a second job. Between 25-35% of prosecutors in my office have another job because they just can't afford to live without the extra income. Those are full-time workers, mind you -- many of whom have wives and husbands, mortgages, and children.

I don't know...I guess you could say that there are choices out there that allow you to make a living doing non-law firm work. The issue in my mind is the discrepancy between the law firm salary and the public service salary. While law firms are keeping miserable people onboard by jacking up the pay [note: this was when the economy was still going strong and law firms were hungry for warm bodies], public sector jobs are bleeding qualified (and loyal/devoted) labor because they can't offer a reasonable salary. Each group 'endures' something in exchange for a reward, but they are very different burdens and benefits.

Read the rest of the post here.

That math is looking pretty tough even if you have no debt. More importantly, can you afford a public service job that pays 40-50K if you've borrowed six figures for that privilege? Unless you ensure ahead of time that you are eligible for loan forgiveness programs (funding for which can come and go, but they are out there), the math just doesn't work out. According to LSAC, the average debt for law school grads is $100,000, which comes to a monthly payment of $1,187 on a standard repayment plan. Add that into the budget the prosecutor itemized above, and things are starting to look grim. So before you accept an offer from a school, let alone borrow six figures to attend, make sure to educate yourself about loan forgiveness programs at the state and local levels as well as from some of the schools themselves. (For example, the DoJ recently announced a $10 million fund to help prosecutors and public defenders pay back their loans.) Good resources for that kind of research include the ABA and Equal Justice Works.

Also keep in mind that public interest jobs can be quite competitive. It won't surprise you to hear that the public interest jobs paying 80-100K attract highly qualified applicants from top schools, but you'll also have plenty of competition for public interest jobs that pay half as much. The reality is that many law school graduates find that they need to work in jobs they're not passionate about in order to pay back their loans and get themselves on sound financial footing.

If I may now segue into an even broader topic: I hear a lot of applicants talk about wanting, even insisting on, careers that they can be "passionate" about. I wholeheartedly applaud people who envision themselves in a career that they can get excited about day in and day out, but they need to be realistic at the same time about how they are going to get there, and how long it's going to take.

Picture a Venn diagram with two bubbles. Bubble 1 includes jobs that pay really well (those six-figure lawyer jobs aren't falling out of the sky for most law school graduates, even in happier economic times), and those jobs tend to be in the private sector, and hard to get. Bubble 2 includes jobs that people can get really passionate about, and for may aspiring lawyers those include issue advocacy or other public interest jobs. Can you find jobs that sit in the intersection of those two bubbles? That's the holy grail for a lot of people, and it can often take a longer time, and a circuitous path, to get there. You have to think longer term, and be willing to make some real sacrifices, before you get both the upside of a high paycheck and the upside of a career you're passionate about.

I realize that's not how some law school applicants think the world works, and I worry about the ones who think getting to the middle of that Venn diagram is easy or quick. Life is full of trade-offs, and you need to know what the trade-offs are for Door A and what the trade-offs are for Door B. Don't assume you can get the upside of both at the same time. The prosecutor I quoted above was pretty realistic about the trade-offs he had made, and he was happy with them, just as there are big firm lawyers for whom the right trade-off is to make more money at jobs they're not necessarily jazzed about. (That being said, there are in fact lawyers in the private sector who enjoy their jobs very much, but trade-offs -- in terms of family life and grander purpose in life -- can be very real for some people.)

I also worry about law school students who borrow a heap of money and then find themselves surprised that they have to make trade-offs in order to pay that money back. When you take out those loans, you have to commit to do whatever you need to do in order to pay them back, even if that means deferring your dreams of a "passion" career until you have the financial freedom to do so. I have trouble imagining older generations -- say, our grandparents -- sitting around complaining about the fact that they couldn't afford to take jobs they were passionate about. Having a work ethic often means getting up every day and doing a job that might not be your idea of fun but that lets you pay the bills and support your family and get yourself out of debt, and not complaining about it.

I dwell on these realities because of stories like this interview by the National Law Journal with a recent law school graduate who gave up a well paying job before law school in the hopes of pursuing a public interest legal career. He borrowed six figured to do so, and then complained to President Obama (!) that he was having trouble lining up the kind of career he had envisioned:

A growing number of disgruntled law school graduates have taken the to Internet to anonymously vent their frustrations about high debt and poor job prospects.

Not Ted Brassfield. The recent Indiana University Maurer School of Law—Bloomington graduate took his concerns to the most powerful person in America: President Obama. Brassfield, 30, laid out his financial problems for the president during a town hall meeting about the economy held Monday in Washington, televised by CNBC. Brassfield explained that he's drowning in law school debt and doesn't have the means to contemplate getting married or starting a family. "I was really inspired by you and your campaign and the message you brought, and that inspiration is dying away," Brassfield told Obama. "What I really want to know is: Is the American dream dead for me?" ....

NLJ: Why did you decide to go to law school?

TB: I had worked a variety of jobs before landing a gig as a researcher in a management consulting agency. I built myself a potentially lucrative career and had some really good prospects, but I didn't want it. I felt like life is too short not to love, or at least deeply care about, what you do. As long as I can remember, I've admired the work of attorneys who stood up for civil rights. There are opportunities as an attorney to really make a fundamental difference in people's lives. I liked the idea of the whole process of litigation, and doing it in the public interest.

NLJ: You graduated from law school in 2009. What have you been doing since then?

TB: I have paid the bills by sporadic contract work. I have tried to drum up non-legal work. I'm not yet a licensed attorney. I'm waiting on the results of the Colorado bar, where I'm originally from.

NLJ: What is your dream job?

TB: I would love to work for the federal government, and I hope that all this attention has not harmed my prospects for that. There are state attorney shops that are phenomenal and would be wonderful to work for. I'm primarily interested in the government sector. The experience I've had interning at the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] and the U.S. attorney's office here in D.C showed me that the resources the federal government can bring to bear are incredible — specifically with regard to training and support.

NLJ: How much debt do you have?

TB: I have six-figures of student loans, which were all accumulated in law school. I didn't want to work for a private firm while I was in law school. I wanted to get the experience of working at different federal agencies. I had these phenomenal practice-building experiences, but I didn't get paid for them.

NLJ: What advice do you have for people in law school or people considering law school?

TB: When I went to law school, about half my friends in D.C. were attorneys at the time, and most of them said, "You ought not go to law school." I don't know what to tell prospective law students. I can only tell them that a lot of the people I know, including myself, are really suffering right now because there aren't accessible jobs. When I've been to job fairs and interviewing workshops, I ask practitioners, "What I should be doing?" They say, "You should volunteer." That's great in theory, except how do you pay the bills? I don't know. For the time being, I know way too many people whose law degree has led to contract jobs. That doesn't create the basis of a career, and that's what I was trying to get at with my question to President Obama. The American Dream isn't just having your own home. It's not just having a family. The American Dream, at least the one I was brought up to believe in, also involves making something of yourself — giving back by doing and creating and having a career.

NLJ: Do you regret going to law school?

TB: I might not have deferred going to law school. I deferred for a year. I would not go back in my class [and graduate in 2009]. I would find something else I could be passionate about.

Is that predicament President Obama's fault? I'm not so sure. The legal market could very well be going through some seismic changes, and it's possible that the market is signaling that there are too many students graduating from law schools that are happy to take your borrowed money and eject you into a legal job market that is very much in flux, with business and hiring models that might be going the way of the dodo. (Elie Mystal over at Above the Law has made that topic his beat, and it's fascinating and instructive reading.)

It also sounds to me as if TB had failed to educate himself properly about his public interest job prospects and realistic returns on his investment. He chucked what sounded like a promising job in the private sector and took on loads of debt to pursue the holy grail of a well paying public interest law job, and refused even to try to gain some private firm experience during one of his law school summers (for many law firm jobs, those summer stints are what lead to permanent offers). That was quite a gamble with so much debt to pay off.

And if I may inject some more tough love and language into my advice for aspiring lawyers: It's not the President's job, or anyone's job but your own, to figure out a way to make money off your passions. The world does not owe you a job you're passionate about. A high-paying job that you love to do all day is a wonderful goal to have and to work towards; it is not an entitlement. If you're lucky and intentional about it and work very hard, you find a way to leverage various experiences over the years into something you love and that also pays well. It is rare to be able to have those kinds of jobs right out of the gate.

We may wish the world were different, and that Bill and Melinda Gates would cut a big check so that public defenders and prosecutors and other public servants don't have to sacrifice their financial well-being in order to do their jobs. In the meantime, if service is genuinely important to you, nothing is stopping you from contributing service and being civically engaged on an unpaid basis. Lots and lots of people do that and somehow manage to be happy. They have jobs that pay the bills (something to be thankful for, no?), and also serve the greater good in ways that are important to them on their own time.

TB might be learning that the hard way -- he may be wishing he had stuck with his old job -- and I don't want to pile on except to use this example as a teachable moment. I would counsel anyone who wants a law degree in order to practice public interest law to think long and hard about the math before committing to law school at all, and before taking out a bunch of loans to attend.

That's true even for applicants who aren't focusing specifically on public interest careers. Many law school graduates can't or don't go marching off to six figure jobs, even when they have six figures of debt to pay off. That's a tough way to go. Check out this bi-modal curve of starting salaries published by NALP: the median starting salary of 85K isn't a terribly helpful number when 25% recent law grads cluster in the Big-Law salary range, around 160K, and an even bigger clump of grads -- 35% -- clusters within 40-65K.

Distribution of Reported Full-Time Salaries — Class of 2009

If you're committed to public service, I'd also recommend that you ask yourself whether there are other ways to accomplish that goal without investing in what is for some people a ruinously expensive law degree. There are plenty of ways to engage in public service without a JD after your name. And if it's that important to you to serve with a JD after your name, and you already know you want and need the financial freedom to pursue lower-paying public interest jobs, consider attending a law school that's not as expensive as some other schools you might be thinking about. A school that throws a big scholarship your way might not be your first or tenth-choice school, but it might permit you to pursue the career you actually want. Those are all things you should include in your analysis as you contemplate this big investment in law school.

Thanks for submitting a great question. Good luck, and please let us know what you decide. Readers: what do you think?


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).