A Mixed Blessing for Aspiring Lawyers

Beirne Roose-Snyder, a Georgetown University law student, struggled with choosing a job in the public or private sector.
Beirne Roose-Snyder, a Georgetown University law student, struggled with choosing a job in the public or private sector. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

For months, Beirne Roose-Snyder has struggled with what she will do after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center. Should she accept the $145,000-a-year offer from a Chicago firm? Or should she gamble and look for a potentially more satisfying public interest job? She and her husband are plowing through some Wok N' Roll takeout in their cramped District basement apartment as they ponder her choice. The deadline is Dec. 1.

"In some ways, I am more afraid of the law firm," says Adam Keller, 28, a Fairfax County teacher. "If you thrive at the firm, I would like you a lot less because you'd be a different person."

Roose-Snyder, 26, smiles. "I think it would reinforce a part of my personality that neither of us like very much," she replies. "The Type A, traditional, ambitious person . . . in a power suit."

Even the most privileged paths come with choices. For Roose-Snyder and other young strivers on the verge of entering the professional world, these decisions can test their values in deep ways for the first time in their lives. In Washington, home to prestigious law firms, government agencies and public interest organizations, the options pose stark contrasts.

Roose-Snyder's situation might be extreme for the amount of money at stake, but many graduates in law and other fields face similar decisions. Consider MBA students torn between Wall Street or a small start-up. Or medical students deciding between family practice or more lucrative specialties such as radiology or orthopedics.

A public service job in global health, Roose-Snyder's passion, would appeal to her Quaker faith. But a position with a brand-name corporate law firm would help erase her and her husband's graduate school debts, help nail down the fundamentals of the field and, perhaps most dear to the couple, offset the cost of adopting a first child. She also is drawn intellectually to the challenge of representing influential clients.

As the deadline nears, Roose-Snyder flip-flops like an undecided juror. She does not take the money for granted and recognizes others would be grateful for the offer. But, she says: "I'm overwhelmed. I just need to make a decision. I really want this to be over."

Although her quandary is familiar in the legal world, the factors that make those high law firm salaries so alluring are intensifying. Law school tuition and student debt keep rising, trade associations report, and the gap between public interest and law firm salaries is widening.

In the land of marble floors and dark wood paneling, veteran lawyers and young associates consider the huge salaries a mixed blessing.

"We don't mind paying the market rate for associates, but we do have some concern that as salaries get higher, you're getting people who really don't want to work at the law firm," said Steven Schulman, a partner with Akin Gump in Washington. "Of course we want law students interested in pro bono work, but in interviews, the red flag is when they seem interested only in pro bono and are not realistic about being a commercial lawyer."

A backlash is brewing against big money and high debt. Schools are starting loan repayment programs to help students afford less lucrative jobs. Some corporate clients, including Wal-Mart, are questioning whether rising associate salaries are driving up legal fees.

Still, law firms are enticing, and not just for the money. Their offers typically arrive as third-year students prepare for the fall term. Those who accept enjoy a relaxing final year of school. Nonprofit and government agencies make offers several months later. So if a third-year prefers a Department of Justice job or a public interest fellowship but wants to keep an offer from a firm as a backup? Often, that can't happen.

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