Two-thirds of law students would not consider a job in public-interest or government service because the salaries are too low to pay their law-school debts, a survey to be released today shows.
With half of law school students with more than $75,000 in debt and 1 in 5 with more than $105,000 in debt, it is no wonder that a job with a well-paying law firm might be more attractive than working for the Justice Department or the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I wouldn't be able to pay back my loans and would wind up on welfare," a respondent said. "Would love to but I don't think I can repay loans this way," another said.
An analysis of salaries and law-school debt also showed that public-interest and government salaries do not keep pace with private-sector salaries, that law-school tuition has ballooned in the past decade and that programs to help repay debt are underfunded and poorly administered.
The survey and report were conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, Equal Justice Works (formerly the National Association for Public Interest Law) and the National Association for Law Placement. The findings are to be released today at Georgetown University Law Center.
"Talented lawyers are being precluded from joining public service by incredible student debt," said Max Stier, president of Partnership for Public Service and a former lawyer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the District's Williams & Connolly law firm.
The results mirror findings by The Washington Post more than two years ago in a series, "The Empty Pipeline," which documented the looming shortage of government employees, about half of whom are eligible to retire in the next few years. The series found that government agencies were struggling to recruit and retain young lawyers for key jobs, and the new survey elaborates on the reasons.
The survey covered 1,622 graduating law students from 117 schools and included data from NALP, which annually gathers some of the most authoritative data on law students, the jobs they get and their salaries.
With in-state tuition at state law schools rising 140 percent and at private law schools 76 percent in the past decade, it is little wonder that 97 percent of the students borrowed money to pay tuition and that 58 percent had debts of $55,000 to $105,000.
Compare that with salaries and the picture is even more bleak for government and public-service recruiters. Since 1991, the median starting salary for a private-practice lawyer jumped 80 percent, from $50,000 to $90,000. But median salary for government and public-interest lawyers increased just 37 percent, with median income for public-interest lawyers at $35,000 and federal government lawyers from $31,500 to $45,000.
"This is a crisis we are facing in terms of enabling them to go into government service or nonprofit organizations," said David Stern, Equal Justice Works executive director. "Our country promises that equal justice is available for everyone, but the reality is that with these debts, very few lawyers could go into public service."
The groups offer several solutions. One is a loan-repayment program to help public-service and government lawyers pay their debts. Such programs are authorized under federal law since 1990, but federal dithering delayed its implementation.
Now that the program has been implemented, only eight lawyers in four agencies have taken advantage of it. The leader is the Energy Department, with five lawyers winning repayments.
There is another problem. While the government is trying to help with the loan-repayment programs, the Internal Revenue Service wants its cut. The strange-bedfellows team of Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the top two members of the House Government Reform Committee, sponsored legislation to make the loan-repayment program tax-free. The bill is dead this year, but the lawyers' advocacy groups hope to make headway next year.
With 28,000 lawyers working in the federal government, and perhaps half of them due to retire soon, there's not a lot of time, Stier said. "They are key for proper functioning of government, from the Department of Homeland Security to HUD," he said.
Bothersome Board Seats
During the recent corporate crime wave, scrutiny of the boards that oversee U.S. companies has increased. Corporate-governance experts complain that directors are too cozy, have conflicts of interest and look the other way when wrongdoing occurs.
The board seat that has caused the most trouble lately was held by William H. Webster of Milbank, Tweed Hadley & McCloy LLP, who sat on the now-insolvent U.S. Technologies Inc. board. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey L. Pitt's decision to put Webster on an audit oversight board backfired when the former FBI and CIA director's board role became public.
Now comes a study by Bloomberg News questioning whether some directors are too overbooked to exercise proper scrutiny. Among them are well-known Washington names, such as Piper Rudnick LLP's George J. Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who in 2001 sat on the boards of 10 companies; Vernon E. Jordan Jr. of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, who sat on nine boards; and former Sen. Sam Nunn of King & Spalding, who held six board seats.
For Mitchell, sitting on those boards meant attending 82 meetings in 2001 to collect $396,000 in fees, plus $325,000 in consulting fees, Bloomberg reported. Jordan: 94 meetings for $503,500. Nunn: 71 meetings for $352,250.
Beyond the Rust Belt
Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue broke tradition on Friday and named a non-Clevelander managing partner. Stephen J. Brogan, a 25-year member of the firm and a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, is based in Jones Day's Capitol Hill office. Founded in Cleveland, Jones Day has 1,800 lawyers worldwide, including 226 in the District. Justice Antonin Scalia, a Jones Day associate in the 1960s, congratulated outgoing managing partner Patrick F. McCartan in a conference call to the firm's annual meeting in Southern California.
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