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High Law School Tuition Prohibits Graduates from Public Service Careers

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Since the early 1970s there has been a steep and persistent rise in the costs of legal education and in the tuitions law schools charge. From 1990 to 2003 the average cost of public education rose 234 percent and the cost of private education rose 118 percent. The average tuition for a public law school is $10,820 for a state resident and $20,171 for a non-resident. The average tuition for a private law school has rose to an astounding $25,584. As a result of the soaring cost of legal education, total financial aid available to students from federal, state, and institutional has also increased dramatically, changing student aid system from a grant-based to a loan-based one. These factors have resulted in law students carrying an extraordinary amount of student debt. As of 2002, 87 percent of law students borrowed money to finance their legal educations. Most graduates of law school today have a cumulative debt form undergraduate and law school that exceeds $80,000. Assuming a standard ten-year repayment schedule, this means payments of more than $1,000 per month. Some students have even higher debt loads than this, as the average full time law student spends $125,000 to attend law school, and many of these students are forced to borrow the full amount.

There are several negative consequences that result from the increasing amount of debt that law students are burdened with. Chief among them is that educational debt bars new lawyers from public service careers. Graduates interested in pursuing government or public interest careers have to take a substantial pay cut. Entry level salaries for government and public interest positions have always been significantly lower than those in private practice. However, since the mid-1970s, the medial starting salaries in the private sector have risen much faster than entry level public service salaries. The median starting salary for a government job is $42,000 and the median entry-level public interest salary is $36,000. On the other hand, the average entry level salary in the private sector is above $90,000. Many students who are interested in pursuing public service careers but are forced to take jobs in the private sector, because they do not have the resources to both repay educational loans and support basic living expenses. In fact, a recent study found that law school debt prevented 66 percent of students from considering a public interest or government job.

Additionally, many law graduates who do take public service legal jobs are forced to leave after gaining a few years of experience. Many of these graduates, who admirably accept public service jobs despite their debt burdens, can no longer continue get by on their public service salary when they start having children. As a result, the public service employers are losing lawyers just at the point when they have gained enough experience to provide valuable services.

Because of the financial pressures that are dissuading law school graduates from seeking public service positions out of law school, public service employers are having serious difficulty recruiting and retaining lawyers. Many of these employers have vacancies that they simply cannot fill. Public service employers are certainly not able to compete for the best qualified candidates. Because of the staggering debts that law students are graduating with, the top law students often not considering jobs in public service, because they are able to acquire very lucrative private sector jobs, which will enable the to pay off their loans.

It is not only the law students that pay a price for the increasing costs of law school (in the form of less career choice caused by heavy financial burdens) but also society as a whole pays a price. Public interest and government employers are suffering because they are not meeting their recruiting goals. Many young lawyers who would like to go into public service, and would make a valuable contribution to a public services employer are unable to do so. When the government is unable to meet its recruiting goals, it functions less efficiently and can no longer serve the public effectively. Furthermore, when public interest employers cannot find qualified attorneys, it prohibits low income Americans from access to legal services. Providing access to justice has always been a very important mission of the legal profession, and it is being compromised, because many lawyers cannot afford to devote their career to this goal.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Most people who address the problem believe that it must be solved by loan repayment assistant programs (LRAPs) created by the federal government, states, law schools, and public service employers. These LRAPs are essentially forgivable loans that are given to lawyers who undertaken full-time public service jobs. But there are not enough LRAPs to the necessary money to incentivize law

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