How to Survive on a Public Interest Salary

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Employment in public interest law includes: nonprofit, legal services, public defender, government work, prosecutor, judge advocate general, private practice, self employment, judicial clerkships, academics, and non-legal organizations.

How to Survive on a Public Interest Salary

According to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), which serves as a source of information for legal career planning and recruitment, median entry-level salaries for public interest jobs start at $34,000. For specific occupations, the median entry-level salary for public defenders is $39,000, $40,000 starting for state and local prosecuting attorneys, and $36,700 for attorneys in public interest organizations.

Marnie L. Glaeberman, Director of Public Service Initiatives at NALP, stated that "there are two financial worries that plague students who choose a public interest career—paying back ridiculous loans and the salaries themselves. Loan repayment is a huge issue that weighs on people. In terms of the pay, a salary in the $30,000 range gives people who owe a tremendous amount pause."

The American Bar Association reported in 2002 that almost 87% of law students borrowed to finance their educations. Karen Lash, a former associate dean at USC Law School and current VP of Programs at Equal Justice Works, stated, "The average amount a law school student can expect to owe is $80,000; this figure does not include loans incurred during undergraduate study."

Equal Justice Works is an organization that helps provide support to public-service-minded law students. In 2004 they issued the report "Financing the Future," which discussed the financial assistance available to those in public interest law.

Ms. Lash stated that the most common form of assistance is law-school-based LRAPs, Loan Repayment Assistance Programs. LRAPs offer grants or forgivable loans to graduates in the public interest sector to help repay portions of their education debts. LRAPs can make a tremendous difference in the management of educational debt. Financing the Future reported that more than 75 law schools offer LRAPs, and more than 20 are working on establishing LRAPs. Ms. Lash recommended students thoroughly research whether their school offers LRAPs.

She continued, "All LRAPs are not created equal and depend on the student's unique circumstance."

Typically an LRAP candidate must have employment that qualifies as public interest work and falls within a certain income level. Financing the Future reported that awards can range from $500 to $10,000.

For tax purposes, students need to know if the LRAP is counted as a grant or forgivable loan. The 1997 Taxpayer Relief Act stated that the award could not be taxed so long as it was a "forgivable loan," i.e., a loan to be canceled, and not a grant that can be taxed as income. The recipient also had to be employed by a governmental unit or nonprofit.

LRAPs are not limited to law schools. There are state-sponsored and Federal LRAPs. Ms. Lash suggested students check with the American Bar Association for more information, as well as Equal Justice Works' website, www.equaljusticeworks.org.

Financing the Future reported that 15 federal government departments and 63 government agencies offer LRAP assistance to eligible employees. The federal government's human resources agency, The Office of Personnel Management, can also provide information.

Other LRAP options are employer and fellowship programs that offer LRAP benefits to those who qualify. On Equal Justice Works' website, the Finance a Career section lists organizations offering LRAP benefits to employees. During the job-search process, this can be an important issue to discuss with prospective employers. Fellowship programs can be researched either on the Internet or through a law school's career center or financial aid office.

There are also public interest scholarships. Many schools offer various types of public interest scholarships that come in the form of tuition reductions or stipends. Ms. Glaeberman described one type.

"Some schools offer a split summer program for students committed to practicing public interest law. A student gets to earn a firm-level salary by spending half the summer working for the firm and the other half working in the public interest sector. These are competitive programs but, if available, can put a big dent in total debt load."

Ms. Glaeberman offered additional survival tips for public-service-minded individuals. "In terms of morale, public service professionals should keep in touch and network with others in their field…they shouldn't compare themselves to colleagues who command a larger salary. This can be demoralizing."

She continued, "Socialize with those who do the same good work and are happy. The most important thing is to hang in there. If a person loves what they do, there is nothing that can replace that."


Click Here to View the 2015 Salaries of the Top Law Firms.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP)


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