High Tuition Debts and Low Pay Drain Public Interest Law
By JONATHAN D. GLATER
The New York Times
September 12, 2003
Often saddled with huge debts taken on to pay for their legal educations, more and more law school graduates are finding it hard to work in low-paying positions as public defenders, legal aid lawyers and — notwithstanding the popularity of "Law and Order" — prosecutors.
When Paula J. Clifford landed a job in the district attorney's office in Bristol County, Mass., in 1998, she was thrilled — until she realized how difficult it would be to repay $70,000 in law school loans on her $26,000-a-year salary.
To make it work, she kept her college bartending job at the Chart House Restaurant on the Boston waterfront, occasionally serving drinks to defense lawyers she had faced in court. She lasted almost five years before her debts became more than she wanted to bear.
"I had to make a life decision," said Ms. Clifford, who joined the Boston office of a prestigious firm in October. "I was 31 and living in an apartment in my parents' house, driving a car with 235,000 miles on it."
Histories like Ms. Clifford's are becoming more common, lawyers warn. Even more than tuition at other schools, the cost of legal education has been soaring in recent years. Experts say the trend threatens a segment of the legal profession that has long depended on lawyers who are willing to give up big salaries for moral satisfaction.
The problem has prompted a debate over programs to forgive loans, to make it easier for law school graduates to take jobs serving clients with limited means who may otherwise not have access to legal representation.
"We have an enormous problem of access to justice in this country," said Curtis M. Caton, a lawyer at Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe in San Francisco. Mr. Caton is also co-chairman of a committee of the American Bar Association that recently released a study on student debt.
Because of debt, he said, "the natural flow of talent into serving that unmet legal need area is choked off."
Law students, the study found, are leaving school with an average debt of $77,300, more than twice the sum they borrowed 10 years ago. Since 1985, tuition at law schools has tripled and in some cases quadrupled. In the same period, public interest salaries have not even doubled.
The story is harsher if inflation is taken into account. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the earnings of lawyers in private practice have risen 70 percent since 1985. Starting lawyers at many big New York firms now earn $125,000 a year.
The starting figures for public interest lawyers have increased 12.5 percent and for government lawyers 3.5 percent.
Paul Walsh Jr., the Bristol prosecutor who was Ms. Clifford's supervisor, faults law school debt for the departure of 8 of the 60 lawyers in his office in the last year, a devastating loss, he said.
Mr. Walsh said it was not hard to find new lawyers because many law school graduates want the experience that his office can provide. But he needs more seasoned lawyers for his office to function properly.
"What hurts me," he said, "is losing those individuals who now have four, five or six years of experience."
Mr. Walsh is not alone. Lawyers at an increasing number of prosecutors' offices are very young or significantly older, with few in between, several district attorneys said. That leaves the younger lawyers with fewer people to advise them on when to take difficult cases to trial, when to seek an indictment or when to take a plea agreement, lawyers said.
J. Tom Morgan, district attorney for DeKalb County, Ga., said his young prosecutors became most valuable after three years on the job. It takes a year to learn criminal procedure, Mr. Morgan said, and even more important, lawyers need to lose lesser cases so they will learn how to win the big ones.
These days, however, they are leaving just as they are becoming competent.
"They are just getting to where they can try a moderately complex case on their own," said Lee Coggiola, chief public defender in Richland County, S.C. "They are in fact able to assist younger lawyers who are just coming in. Also, every time a lawyer leaves, we have to reassign close to 200 cases."
In some cases, undergraduate debt contributes to law graduates' problems. According to the College Board, tuition at four-year institutions has increased 159 percent in 15 years, to $18,273 from $7,048 at private colleges, and to $4,081 from $1,485 at public colleges.
The median tuition at medical schools has increased 107 percent, to $32,675 from $15,770 at private institutions, and 168 percent, to $30,515 from $11,390 at public institutions.
Lawyers argue that doctors already have financial incentives to work in remote or underserved areas. The Association of American Medical Colleges does not have data on average tuition covering the past 15 years.
At law schools, tuition rose 171 percent, to $24,193 from $8,911 at private schools, and 223 percent, to $18,146 from $5,616 at public schools, and students have taken out more loans as a result.
Student debt seems to make it harder to recruit nonwhite lawyers in particular, Mr. Morgan of DeKalb County said. "They will have not only the largest law school loans," he said, "but also undergraduate loans."
This year, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, introduced a bill that would forgive loans of law school graduates who worked in prosecutors' or public defenders' offices for three years, said H. Scott Wallace, director of defender legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington.
"There's a lot of interest in extending this to legal aid lawyers and lots of other folks, as well," Mr. Wallace added.
Not everyone sympathizes with lawyers who are forced to take high-paying jobs. But supporters of programs for loan forgiveness have little time for such criticism.
"I'd rather focus on the sacrifice and the provision of a necessary service, to provide access to justice, than to get cynical about what the alternative happens to be," said Mr. Caton, who worked on the bar group's study.
Some wealthier law schools help graduates repay loans if they take low-paying jobs, but many do not. Catholic University, for example, does not, and that is one major reason Claudia M. Vitale says she left her job at the Riverdale, Md., legal aid office to go to a private firm in Bethesda, Md. Ms. Vitale lasted almost three years as a legal aid lawyer, from July 2000 to last April, representing clients in custody disputes, domestic violence and other cases.
She took a second job at an Ann Taylor in Chevy Chase and used her employee discount to buy clothes to wear to court. Ms. Vitale took out a consumer loan, but with no prospect of a significant raise, she decided to take a job offer from a firm.
"I stayed because it was such a challenging, rewarding job," Ms. Vitale said of legal aid.
But keeping a second job and debt concerns were too much, she said, adding, "It was just impossible to continue under those conditions."
The math was equally clear for C. Christopher Flinn, an assistant district attorney in Decatur, Ga. He worked in the office there for about three years. In 2001, concerned about his young family's finances, Mr. Flinn decided to leave. He accepted an offer made over pizza at a restaurant near his office, from two friends, both of whom had also recently left. He became the fifth of his friends to leave the office in less than two years, he said.
"I got to a point," Mr. Flinn said, "that financially it was really the only decision I could make."
Pamela S. Wells, an assistant state's attorney in Winnebago County, Ill., held a second job at a Barnes & Noble to supplement her $29,000 salary and cope with a $60,000 debt. By day, she tried to protect children from abusive relatives and serial child molesters; by night she sold books.
For another year and a half, she worked at a nearby U.P.S. center. It paid better than the bookstore, she said, "and I was in the best physical shape of my life."
That was not enough. Unable to make her loan payments, in 1998 she defaulted and declared bankruptcy.
"I was very ashamed," Ms. Wells said. Now, she said, she has repaid the principal on her loans and is working to rebuild her credit history.
She thought about leaving the office to work at a firm but could not bring herself to do it, she said.
"Right now," she added, "I'm the supervisor for the child protection unit, and I've always worked on a lot of cases where kids are the victims. Sometimes it's a thankless job. But there aren't a lot of people looking out for those kids. They need a champion."