A Mixed Blessing for Aspiring Lawyers
High Tuition and Debt Lure Graduates Toward High Pay, Away from Public Service Jobs

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.

"Are you going to hold off on the law firm, knowing there's a line 20 deep to take it?" asked David Stern, chief executive of Equal Justice Works, a District-based nonprofit organization that offers 50 law graduates fellowships each year that pay $37,500. "Or are you going to take the bird in hand? How do you hold out? You have to have nerves of steel."

One night early this month, Roose-Snyder and Keller are debating the options in their Columbia Heights apartment, which is so small that an espresso maker and other wedding gift/kitchen appliances must be stored in a closet with the washer and dryer.

They lay everything out. Either Roose-Snyder takes a job with Drinker Biddle Gardner Carton, where she worked last summer, or she turns down Chicago and goes for fellowships. She's zeroing in on a $60,000-a-year fellowship at Georgetown's O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, which has a March deadline. An institute official is urging her to apply and forget the firm.

The fellowship would allow her to advance a project she helped launch that examines how universities license medical research to corporations. She dreams one day of possibly working in places without LLP in the name: the World Health Organization or UNAIDS, run by the United Nations.

But the firm would help pay off the couple's school debt and give Roose-Snyder litigation and transaction experience that could open up opportunities.

"I never forget that there are brilliant people who are toiling away at other schools who can't afford to turn this job down," Roose-Snyder says, rubbing her eyes.

They open a fortune cookie. "Learn Chinese Have Money," it advises.

They start rationalizing the Drinker Biddle offer. No more long-term debt. Enough money to adopt a child. "Neither of us has the feeling that we're not parents unless the child looks like us," Roose-Snyder says.

Maybe she could put her time in at the firm for a short period? Sort of like the Peace Corps, they joke.

"Friends call it 'Corporate Corps,' " says Keller, a science teacher at Langley High School in McLean.

About 56 percent of law school graduates immediately enter private practice, according to NALP (formerly the National Association for Law Placement). Fourteen percent go into business. Twenty-two percent enter government, and 5 percent work for a public interest organization or an advocacy practice such as Legal Aid.

The American Bar Association reports that the average amount private law school students borrowed in 2005-06 reached about $83,200; the total was about $54,500 for those in public law schools. The median starting salary for lawyers at non-governmental or public interest organizations is $40,000, according to NALP, and for those in government, $48,000. For private practice lawyers, the median is $95,000. This year, first-year associate salaries at some firms reached $160,000, partners say. That's not counting bonuses.

Some, especially those in schools with generous financial aid, can say no.

"I decided to turn it down. Why? I wanted a hands-on job in prosecution. You get better hands-on training up front," said Prince George's County native Andrew Canter, a third-year student at Stanford Law School who helped start a group called Building a Better Legal Profession. The group ranks firms based on required billable hours and the amount of pro bono work, an attraction for those who feel guilty about avoiding that Legal Aid job.

In mid-November, over beer with friends at a bar near the law campus, just off Capitol Hill, Roose-Snyder announces she has been scanning the Internet for condominiums in Chicago. Nothing too fancy. She's looking for a two-bedroom place, near public transportation -- maybe something with exposed brick walls? Besides, she says, not all the firm's clients are profit-pumping corporations.

"My firm represents tons and tons of hospitals," she says, explaining her leaning. "I consider that helping the public good."

Her friend Shai Kalansky, 26, also a third-year, explains why he took a job at the corporate law firm where he worked during the summer. "I think about the people I met. I reflect on the experience. It's about the people," says Kalansky, clad in a dark hooded sweat shirt that bore the firm's name.

"I really like that hoodie," Roose-Snyder says.

With a couple of weeks before deadline, Roose-Snyder and Keller are cooking chicken on the George Foreman grill, and she is nearing a decision. There's a new development. The O'Neill Institute is likely to give her academic credit to research a possibly groundbreaking paper. It would examine how universities can license medical research to pharmaceutical companies to help people in developing countries access lifesaving drugs.

Roose-Snyder reasons that if a prominent health-law journal publishes her research, she would feel more comfortable taking the Chicago job. The firm would give her mentorship and a sense of how the profession works. And if she wanted a public interest job down the line, a published paper could make her an attractive candidate.

"I'll make sure if we buy a condo that it would be a mortgage we could afford if I left the firm at some point later," she says. She pulls out the offer letter and inks the deal. After sealing the envelope, she raises her left arm in a gesture that says, What else can I do?

"Well," Keller says, laughing. "Don't look at me."

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